Shaking the family tree

The Mormon Church takes its vast database online -- and gives the genealogy world a charge.

Published April 14, 1999 12:23PM (EDT)

When it comes to genealogical resources, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has the goods. Records for more than 2 billion names are stored in its Salt Lake City library -- and now that the church's FamilySearch Web site has begun beta testing, some of that trove is coming online.

The Internet already offers lots of resources for amateur family-tree sleuths. But what the church has is a one-of-a-kind collection of the sort of hard documentation that professional genealogists demand. And even the possibility that its data might be made available online for free has the genealogy world abuzz -- and holds the potential to turn a much larger population of Web surfers on to the pleasures of hunting down bloodlines.

"This is what we've been waiting for," says Cyndi Howell, genealogist and publisher of Cyndi's List, a collection of more than 41,700 links to genealogy sites on the Web.

FamilySearch isn't slated for a full unveiling until late spring or early summer. But already, visitors to the site can poke around in church databases -- like the Ancestral File, with 35 million names organized by family, or the International Genealogical Index, with 285 million names extracted from public records. For the lucky, that could mean finding quick proof that the family tree branches right back to the Mayflower, or to Great-uncle Alistair's illegitimate daughter.

The church won't yet say how much of its genealogical holdings it plans to make available through FamilySearch. The secrecy, church spokesman Michael Purdy says, is just a way to keep people's expectations in check. "There had been a lot of speculation" even before the site went live, Purdy adds, but for now the church will not confirm even the most basic information -- like whether the invaluable site will remain free of charge.

Still, excitement is rampant among genealogists. "It's really breathtaking," says Tom Kemp, library director at the New England Historic Genealogical Society, who began tinkering with the site as soon as it went up. He is especially impressed with its ability to search several enormous databases simultaneously: "It's going to change the way we do business."

You might not see why at first: The church has already gone to great lengths to make its collection available to the public, operating 3,200 Family History Centers around the world. Anyone can visit a center and search the church's CD-ROM collection at no charge, or send away for one of its 2.1 million rolls of microfilm (each of which contains about 1,000 pages of records) for a nominal mailing fee. The church offers other data on CDs free of charge.

"Serious genealogists already use this data all the time," says Charles Merrin, senior director of online genealogy at the Learning Company, which sells the popular Family Tree Maker software. He says putting the church's collection online "is just a matter of convenience" for amateur researchers -- but, he adds, that alone should have a huge impact on the field.

It's not that genealogy hobbyists are lazy. But as it becomes faster and easier to get results, more enthusiasts flock to the pastime. Merrin provides an example from Family Tree Maker: Sales shot up dramatically once an updated version of the software was released with an integrated index to the company's data collection, which is available on separate CDs, providing faster results. It's a whole lot easier than heading across the country to see if the courthouse still has a record of Great-aunt Betty's birth certificate. About 80 percent of the 2.5 million copies of Family Tree Maker sold have been purchased since the index was added four years ago, and Merrin attributes the sales boom directly to the instant gratification effect of the index.

Merrin and his peers in the genealogical services business expect the powerful research tools of FamilySearch to generate a similar boom across the field.

"It'll have a huge impact, encouraging people who are just starting out," says Howell of Cyndi's List -- who figures that people who haven't been able to visit a Family History Center will now find time to get online, when the dishes are done and the kids put to bed.

Paul Allen, general manager of the popular genealogical service (and no relation to the Microsoft founder), sees FamilySearch setting off an explosion of genealogical awareness: "We're looking forward to a huge increase in interest in genealogy and visitors to our site."

FamilySearch, at least initially, won't post actual records (like scanned birth certificates), but rather indices of its humongous collection. To lay hands on the documents themselves, many researchers will still have to visit a Family History Center. That's because genealogy is all about primary sources and collecting evidence that you are who you say you are. To create a proper family pedigree, you can't just swap stories with second cousins; you need documents.

In fact, without hard-copy proof, my family-tree chart -- drawn up by a now-deceased great-aunt who had traced our lineage back to 1648 -- is basically worthless. To please a real stickler, I can only claim my paternal grandmother, for instance, if I have my birth certificate, naming my parents; their marriage certificate; my father's birth certificate; his parents' marriage certificate; and, finally, my grandmother's birth certificate. Obviously, collecting public-record evidence going back to 1648 is a tougher job, and one I presume my great-aunt already undertook. But if I want my tree to be taken seriously by professional genealogists, I'll have to turn up her files or re-create them.

"It's just like college," says Fran Shane, executive director of the National Genealogical Society. "You need to be able to footnote yourself or you can't prove your argument." This need for documentation is what makes data indices crucial to genealogists, especially those who may have names but need proof of relationship.

The slow thrill of landing such evidence has apparently turned on millions of Americans to such sleuthing. As many as 19 million people are actively tracing their roots, according to a 1995 poll conducted by Maritz Marketing Research for American Demographics magazine. And genealogy experts say the number may have grown with the boom in online genealogy services. Tens of thousands of home pages post family pedigrees, and as many as one-third of surfers have used the Web for genealogical research, according to a 1998 survey conducted by AT&T WorldNet.

Most of the Web's genealogy sites, however, are personal pages reflecting amateur research into one family's lineage. While the information can be valuable, much of what's posted only qualifies as a secondary source. Sites dedicated to primary source research, like and (run by the Learning Company), are relatively few. Of them, the Mormon Church's site is expected to be the most comprehensive.

Aside from the FamilySearch site and the centers, the church commits an undisclosed sum and millions of volunteer hours to genealogical research. Current efforts include digitizing 17 million Ellis Island immigration records, as well as the 80 million records found in the 1880 U.S. Census and the 1881 British Census. The church tackles such operations with volunteer time and its own funds; its 10 million members commit 10 percent of their income to the overall church budget.

The church's dedication to genealogy stems from religious doctrine: Family members can remain united in an afterlife if they are baptized and their marriages "sealed" for eternity by a sacred ordinance. Deceased relatives who did not have the benefit of such teachings can be baptized or have their vows sealed posthumously, and the church says its "members are taught they have a religious obligation to trace their own genealogies and perform temple ordinances for their ancestors."

Of course, the church's data benefits not just church members but anyone interested in genealogy. Still, commercial genealogical service providers say that FamilySearch poses no threat to their businesses, which charge as much as $60 per year for access to online databases. The church's free service "is highly complementary" to and similar sites, says Allen.

That's because, in general, the commercial sites offer different records than the church., for instance, digitizes millions of records a year and sells the data on CDs and through its Web site. Any serious family-tree tracer will end up visiting multiple sites to try to fill in the blanks.

"The size and scale of preparing big data sets is enormous and costs millions of dollars," says the Learning Company's Merrin. "If you have to split the revenue for them, you can't afford to do it," and with so much data yet to be digitized, so far there's no reason for the genealogy data-gatherers to tread on each others' toes.

As long as that cooperation holds, genealogists and the industry that has sprung up around them stand to benefit from a self-perpetuating cycle of success: Research investments generate speedier results, and therefore more interest in genealogy, which in turn drives up profits and more investment in research.

The church's decision to bring the world's largest collection of genealogical research online, then, should only sweeten the pie for everyone. "Genealogy is really going through the ceiling," says Shane, at the National Genealogical Society, who reports growing attendance at society conferences and an ever younger membership. But in the end, he says, it's not about ease or speed -- when it comes to tracing ancestry, "it's the journey that's exciting."

By Kaitlin Quistgaard

Kaitlin Quistgaard, Salon's former technology editor, writes frequently about the arts and South America, where she once lived.

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