FamilySearch Celebrates 120 Years

Contributed By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer

  • 1 December 2014

The Genealogical Society of Utah and FamilySearch through the years.  Image courtesy of Aaron Thorup.

Article Highlights

  • The society was formed under the direction of President Wilford Woodruff.
  • The Genealogical Society of Utah switched to FamilySearch in 1999.
  • FamilySearch is one of the largest family history services in the world.

“Today, the vast collection of historical records and other family history services for preserving and sharing information are available for free to anyone at FamilySearch.org and the famous Family History Library in Salt Lake City.” —Paul Nauta, FamilySearch

FamilySearch International, the Church’s worldwide Internet genealogy service and the largest such service in the world, is observing a milestone this month: 120 years since the formation of its forerunner, the Genealogical Society of Utah.

In 1894 the society was formed under the direction of Church President Wilford Woodruff, and it held its first meeting on November 12 of that year.

Its purpose was to assist Church members—then largely immigrants from Europe and the British Isles concentrated in Utah—to seek out their ancestors and preserve their family trees for future generations.

“Today, the vast collection of historical records and other family history services for preserving and sharing information are available for free to anyone at FamilySearch.org and the famous Family History Library in Salt Lake City,” said Paul Nauta of FamlySearch public affairs.

He traced the following highlights since the society’s beginning:

During the Great Depression in the 1930s, the society pioneered the broad use of microfilm to preserve and provide access to the world’s genealogical records. Hundreds of microfilm cameras were operated in dozens of countries.

“Revolutionary at the time, the special cameras would take a picture of a historic document, shrinking the image down to roughly 1 percent of its original size on the film that could then be magnified using a microfilm reader,” Brother Nauta said. “In addition, if properly stored, the film could be preserved for at least 500 years.”

In 1963 the society completed the Granite Mountain Records Vault in Little Cottonwood Canyon east of the Salt Lake Valley. Hewn from solid rock, the vault is climate controlled to provide the perfect conditions for long-term storage of microfilmed records. More than 2.4 million rolls of film from more than 120 countries and principalities are stored there today.

In 1984 the society pioneered one of the first desktop genealogy management software programs on the market, Personal Ancestral File. It also developed GEDCOM (Genealogical Data Communication), a software code that helped launch the genealogy technology industry and enabled users to save and share genealogical data.

“No longer serving a local customer base, the Genealogical Society of Utah eventually began operating as FamilySearch to align with its expanded international operations and growing, widespread consumer base,” Brother Nauta said. “It launched its popular free website, FamilySearch.org, in 1999, which today is available in 10 languages.”

In 2007 FamilySearch adapted Internet crowd-sourcing to family history by creating a web platform where hundreds of thousands of volunteers can look at digital images of historic records and index the genealogical information they contain so that it is freely searchable online for people seeking family connections. Volunteers have made over 1 billion records searchable in just seven years.

“In 2013 FamilySearch introduced its free online Family Tree service and Memories feature,” Brother Nauta noted. “These online tools allow users to freely build, preserve, and share their family trees, photos, stories, and historical documents collaboratively. Individuals and families have already contributed over a billion records.”

Brother Nauta said FamilySearch today is a premier brand that is well respected among archivists globally and is a top consumer website serving tens of millions of individuals and families who use it to build, preserve, share, and research their family histories and records.