Role of Family History Department Has Shifted Dramatically, Says Keynote Speaker

Contributed By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer

  • 13 August 2014

FamilySearch has continued to progress, with the creation in 2007 of an online indexing platform, recently relaunched. 

Article Highlights

  • FamilySearch is the largest genealogical organization in the world, and its origin came from the Genealogical Society of Utah, which was created in 1894.
  • In 1922 the organization began indexing records of deceased persons on index cards and, in 1938, pioneered the use of microfilm for records preservation.
  • FamilySearch has continued to progress, with the creation in 2007 of an online indexing platform, and now gets more than 8 million hits per day.

PROVO, UTAH

Over the years, the role of the Family History Department of the Church has shifted dramatically, going from “an organization that spent all of [its] time gathering to an organization that spent a lot more time facilitating,” the chief genealogical officer of FamilySearch said during a keynote address July 31 on the third day of the Conference on Family History and Genealogy at BYU.

David E. Rencher has occupied the CGO spot for FamilySearch, the Church’s international Internet genealogical service, since 2009, but he has been with the department for decades, during which time he has seen much change.

“There could be no mistake that FamilySearch is about records,” he said. “We have gathered records for many, many years. We have continued to post scanned books and lineage-linked databases. All of these things continue to go up at an accelerated rate.

“Maybe a little less understood by many in the community is our leadership and expertise and how we have driven standards in the community, both in micrographics and in other arenas.”

Identifying FamilySearch as the largest genealogical organization in the world, Brother Rencher traced its history from its origin as the Genealogical Society of Utah in 1894.

In 1922, the organization began indexing records of deceased persons on index cards and, in 1938, pioneered the use of microfilm for records preservation.

“By 1963, that collection had grown so large that we were worried about its long-term preservation, so the Granite Mountain Record Vault up Little Cottonwood Canyon [east of Salt Lake Valley] was built to preserve those records,” he said.

In 1985, what by then was called the Church Genealogical Department moved into its newly constructed library in Salt Lake City, “the first facility built for that purpose,” Brother Rencher noted.

“In 1998, we started to see a complete shift away from microfilm to digital images,” he recounted. “In 1999, we launched the FamilySearch website.”

FamilySearch continued to progress, with the creation in 2007 of an online indexing platform, recently relaunched, he said, adding that the website continued with tremendous and rapid growth, including the recent launch of two new mobile apps.

The website gets more than 8 million hits a day and has more than 3 million users, he said, adding that it has some 1,700 record collections with more than 3.2 billion searchable names.

Progress over the years has led to what is known as the FamilySearch Family Tree, an online database of lineage-linked genealogies, to which descendants contribute in collaboration with their relatives and from which they mutually benefit.

FamilySearch gets more than 8 million hits a day, has more than 3 million users, and has some 1,700 record collections with more than 3.2 billion searchable names.

Brother Rencher drew upon the book Finding Allies and Building Alliances by Mike Leavitt and Rich McKeown, which posits that when people are motivated by their own problems, they often discover that they can find solutions to them by responding to the interests of others.

Brother Rencher said that the collaborative effort that constitutes FamilySearch today grew out of “common points of pain” between the Church and individual researchers.

“For the Church, it was the duplication of temple ordinances” and “the manpower that was necessary to avoid that duplication,” he said. “And it was the development of complex manual and automated systems. Both of these were consuming a large portion of Church resources.”

For individuals, the point of pain was “the duplication of research, time, and resources,” Brother Rencher said, explaining that a person might research his own ancestry, only to find out that a cousin had done the exact same research, paid for the same certificates, or traveled to an ancestral area to engage in research that, as it turned out, had already been done.

Brother Rencher said the desire to avoid duplication in temple ordinances led initially to the creation of the Temple Index Bureau in 1922, which eventually compiled all the temple records performed since 1842.

In 1969, the three- and four-generation programs were inaugurated, in which Church members, working from records in the Temple Index Bureau, compiled their personal genealogies for submission to the Church. These were compiled into a database called the International Genealogical Index, or IGI, originally published on microfiche and later automated on computer.

Compact-disc technology facilitated the creation of TempleReady, a means by which Church members could go to local family history centers and clear ancestral names for temple ordinance work.

“All of the data that researchers collected led to automated pedigrees,” Brother Rencher said. “We first started with the Ancestral File, and later came the Pedigree Resource File. Data from the IGI, Ancestral File, and Pedigree Resource file was the basis for today’s Family Tree on the FamilySearch website,” which allows users to collaborate online with relatives far and near in researching and disseminating their family history, Brother Rencher said.

“When we look at the FamilySearch direction and vision, we are keenly focused on engaging more people to participate in family history,” Brother Rencher said. “As the circle widens, and as we invite more people to participate, what is the outcome? We have more beginners. … We have to manage the learning curve of these new participants. We have to become mentors.”

Ultimately, he said, “We are trying to have the most accurate database of lineage-linked data on the planet.”

As for past duplication of ordinances on the part of the Church and duplication of research on the part of individuals, Brother Rencher drew an analogy from the construction of the new Ogden Utah Temple, which is open for public viewing.

There was undoubtedly an element of scrap as temple construction was done, he mused. But one doesn’t see the scrap; one only sees the beautiful edifice.

“If you apply that analogy to the work that we are doing, then the duplication of ordinances in temples is part of the price we pay to produce this beautiful family history and to see that the work is done,” he said.

“The Brethren with whom I work and at whose feet I have the pleasure to sit and be taught are clear on this one point: Time in the temple is never wasted.”

Note: The PowerPoint slides from Brother Rencher’s presentation and the text of the keynote address given by Elder Paul E. Koelliker at the conference on July 30 (covered in last week’s Church News) can be viewed at familyhistoryconferences.byu.edu. Click on “Family History & Genealogy,” then “Schedule,” and then “Keynote Presenters.”