3 Challenges in the Genealogy World and How FamilySearch Is Helping


The global genealogy community enjoys unprecedented growth but faces major challenges too. Here’s what FamilySearch is doing about three of the most crucial needs.

In a keynote address at the recent BYU Conference on Family History and Genealogy, FamilySearch executive Stephen J. Valentine reported on the ongoing efforts of the world’s largest nonprofit genealogical organization.

“FamilySearch has been helping you discover your ancestors since 1894, when it was the Genealogical Society of Utah,” he told a packed lecture hall on the Brigham Young University campus in Provo, Utah. “Whether it was our pioneering work microfilming records in archives in 1938, our libraries, digitizing our vast microfilm collection and more records around the world, or building the FamilySearch Family Tree, we have been meeting the challenges and needs of family historians for 125 years.”

Today, family historians enjoy unprecedented access to resources that help them reconstruct the stories of their ancestors. But there’s still much to be done, said Valentine. He described three pressing challenges facing the global genealogy community and what FamilySearch is doing to meet them.

Preserve Records around the World before They Disappear

“There is an urgent need for record preservation,” said Valentine. “We take for granted that old records will always be there. But they won’t. The information you may need about your family history may be deteriorating in an archive right now, or it may sit in the path of a coming natural disaster. It’s a race against the clock.”

Valentine described several dire archival situations encountered by FamilySearch staffers around the world. “In the Congo, we raced against termites that were eating the records we were trying to preserve,” he recalls. He also described a room in an Italian facility filled wall-to-wall by a heap of manuscripts piled waist high on the stone floor.

National archives in Kinshasa.

FamilySearch staffers and volunteers identify, prioritize,and gain permission to digitally preserve the most important—and most vulnerable—records. On any given day, around 300 FamilySearch camera crews operate around the world. They offer digital copies to the records custodians and store preservation copies safely in another location. Preservation copies are updated to new file types as needed to keep current with changing technologies.

FamilySearch’s efforts to preserve the past sometimes require more creativity. “In some places in Africa, there aren’t as many written records,” Valentine explained.“Oral traditions hold the history of the people. There is a saying that when the village elder dies, the town library burns down. And urbanization is pulling young people out of the villages, so they don’t have that heritage.”

For the past few years, FamilySearch volunteers have been interviewing village elders across Africa, capturing the genealogies and stories held only in memory. Valentine told of 95-year old Opanin Kwame Nketia, who shared a family tree stretching back 12 generations. “He died the day after we interviewed him. We must capture these memories now, before they disappear.”

Valentine shared another example of records that would have disappeared forever without FamilySearch’s intervention. “In the Philippines, a civil archive was destroyed by fire, along with all its records. But we had digitized many records there and were able to provide a copy of their records back to them.”

Make More Records More Accessible—Faster

Stack of digital storage servers.

All these record imaging projects, as well as the ongoing digitization of previously-microfilmed records, have produced a mind-boggling repository of digital data. Valentine reported that FamilySearch currently houses18 petabytes of digital storage—“72times what is in the Library of Congress.”

The digital images keep coming—about 150 million of them per year from paper documents around the world. Valentine shared exciting projects happening in China, Brazil, Italy, Demark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Germany,France, the Netherlands, and Mexico. “It’s a constant flow of data,” Valentine said, displaying a long list of FamilySearch updates just from the previous two days.

This enormous stream of data produces another problem: how to keep up with it. The workflow required to process incoming images—uploads,quality checks, metadata editing, corrections, and more—can take one to three years. “But what if we could do it in 24 hours?” posed Valentine. He reported promising results in testing that kind of turnaround with a project in Peru. “Imagine if we can get these digital images flowing to you that quickly.”

“But another problem with records access is still searchability,” he acknowledged. “Browsing images is tough.” He described a partnership with BYU involving teaching computers to extract data from old records. “We’ve been training the computer to recognize the content, such as names and places, and even to correctly interpret a phrase like, ‘This name is the son of that name.’” Applying this technology to 23 million obituaries, he said, “It took only 8 hours to process 100 million names out of them. Now we have a pipeline built for new obituaries.”

Collection of obituaries from FamilySearch.
Example of an indexed obituary.

Advances have also been made in teaching computers to read old handwriting. “We have a lot of examples for the computer to learn from, for example, many variations in old handwriting that all say ‘Stephen.’ As we run trials of this technology, we need indexers more than ever who can enhance and edit what the machine is reading.”

“Now think again about that flow of digital images we hope to do in 24 hours,” he concluded.  “If we can run it through a language processor [to extract the genealogical data] and then you quality-check it as an indexer to confirm that it’s accurate, we have sped up access to that collection by several years.”

Awaken New Interest in Family History, Especially among Young People

A final challenge FamilySearch is addressing is that of introducing the joy of family history discoveries to new audiences. “Some who haven’t participated in this activity before might ask, ‘What’s the point?’”said Valentine. “They need to have their own discovery and connection experiences.”

In 2017, FamilySearch launched an interactive family history discovery exhibit at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Guests of all ages can enjoy high-tech engagement with touch-screen monitors, virtual-reality platforms, and state-of-the-art booths for recording oral histories. Since then, companion centers have opened in Laytonand Lehi,Utah, and in Seattle,Washington. While Valentine acknowledges lively interest in these exhibits,they don’t reach everyone.

That’s why FamilySearch launched its online family history activities portal earlier this year. “‘All about Me’ has been one of most popular experiences in the libraries. You can learn what was going on the year you were born and how many people share your name. Now you can do this online, with your kids or grandkids.”

The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has also extended its hours in an effort to reach more people. “All of the people traveling through Salt Lake City on Sundays were frustrated at not being able to visit the Family History Library,” Valentine said. “People wanted to bring their families in on Monday nights.” The main floor is now open Sundays from 1:00 to5:00 pm, and the entire library remains open on Mondays until 9:00 pm.

Discovery Center in downtown Salt Lake, UT.

Efforts such as these are working, reports Valentine. “We are seeing an incredible growth of new people coming into this industry and engaging in family history.”

The BYU Conference on Family History and Genealogy is held annually and offers classes for genealogists and others wanting to learn about their ancestors. Keep an eye on the BYU conference page for announcements about next year’s schedule and when registration opens.

Read More from BYU Genealogy Conference Archives

About the Author
Sunny Jane Morton teaches family history to global audiences as a speaker and writer. She is a contributing editor at Family Tree Magazine (U.S.) and content manager for Your DNA Guide. She is co-author of How to Find Your FamilyHistory in U.S. Church Records and author of Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy. Find her at www.sunnymorton.com.