Preserving Historical Records: Lesson of the National Personnel Records Center Fire

By Angelyn Hutchinson

The flames started shortly after midnight on July 12. Firefighters arrived only four minutes later, but the intense heat and smoke kept the firefighters from reaching the sixth floor. Millions of gallons of water were poured on the blaze.

Twenty-two hours later, the 1973 inferno at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, had destroyed 16 to 18 million military personnel records. It was a disaster unparalleled in US records keeping. Most of those records had no duplicated or microfilm copies. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that 80 percent of Army personnel records and 75 percent of Air Force personnel records from 1912 to 1960 were lost forever.

Destruction of Records

Daily, a less dramatic but just as deadly destruction happens at archives, libraries, government offices, and individual homes where records reside. Sunlight, dust, water, heat, humidity, acid, chemical coatings, and a myriad of other natural processes eat away at the world’s historical records if they are not properly preserved.

One heartbreaking example of such degradation affected an Army microfilm that wasn’t consumed in the St. Louis fire. A copy of the World War I and World War II Bonus Applications, was thought to be protected because it was on microfilm—a medium generally regarded by preservationists to last 200 years.

The microfilm was no match for the hot, humid climate in which they were housed. “The film deteriorated because of these conditions. It was brittle and would break and even disintegrate when someone tried to unroll it from the reel,” said Steve Waters of FamilySearch, an international nonprofit, and the largest genealogical organization in the world and a leader in historic records preservation and access.

In desperation, an archivist called FamilySearch and asked if the film could be salvaged and converted to an electronic copy. It was too late. Attempts to save the film by FamilySearch and another professional service failed. One more irreplaceable, historical record was gone forever. 


Plan Ahead and Digitize

FamilySearch is in the forefront of efforts to digitize, preserve, maintain, and publish the world’s historical and genealogical records online to help individuals worldwide make family history connections and discoveries. It has been heavily involved in record preservation since 1938 when it was known as the Genealogical Society of Utah.

This Salt Lake City-based genealogical giant has digital images of 1.2 billion historical documents and 5.5 billion searchable names freely available online from historical records. “Annually, the nonprofit adds 125 million new digital images to the massive database from new capture,” said John de Jong of FamilySearch, “and another 250 million from its microfilm to digital conversion efforts.”

FamilySearch has accumulated 2.4 million rolls of microfilm from the first 70 years of its preservation efforts. It has since migrated to digital preservation cameras and is now in the process of converting its vast microfilm collection to digital versions for easier and broader online access.

John de Jong said the growth in this effort to digitally preserve the world’s genealogical treasure trove is made possible by FamilySearch’s dedicated cadre of volunteers and employees, working full time or part time on-site with the cooperation of record keepers around the globe. FamilySearch has over 330 cameras, including 50 in North America, that are being used under the direction of records custodians to capture archive quality digital images of their historical documents.

These FamilySearch teams work to preserve all types of records—church and civil vital records, census and military records, probates, wills, naturalization and citizenship records, voter and tax records, and funeral and mortuary records.

“There should be no reason for an archive’s historical records to be at risk,” said de Jong. “Records custodians have the noble commission to protect and provide access to their records. We are in the business to help them succeed.”

“A primary aim of historic records preservation is to provide greater access to family history researchers that will allow them to connect with their ancestors and flesh out their life stories,” said Steve Waters, an archives relationship manager for FamilySearch.

“As individuals use the digital images of records to discover they have ancestors from a specific county, outside interest in the county and its services may increase significantly,” he said.

Patricia Smith-Mansfield, president of the national Council of State Archivists, said state and other government entities “are only the stewards of these records. We believe these records are the people’s records. The more access for people to get to these records, the better.”

Smith-Mansfield, who is also director of the Utah State Archives, said a state’s goals of providing access and preserving records aligns with FamilySearch’s core values. “Together, we can get more done,” the archivist said, explaining her state’s partnership with FamilySearch.

Similar partnerships have allowed Ohio records keepers in Hamilton, Jefferson, and Cuyahoga counties to preserve archival-quality images of probate, land, immigration, indigent soldier records, naturalization records, marriage certificates, and more.

In Maryland, a FamilySearch project is currently digitizing the state’s extensive wills and probate records. “Some of these probate records go back to the founding of the colony,” reported Timothy D. Baker, Maryland state archivist and vice president of the national Council of State Archivists. He said it’s been estimated that it could take 23 years to complete the task. But the important thing is that something is being done; progress is being made.

The preparatory work alone was a huge undertaking. The FamilySearch volunteers and Baker’s staff had to ready documents for digitization by removing staples, paper clips, and grommets. The trifold papers, tightly packed in boxes, “must be taken apart; flattened for scanning. It’s a lot of work,” said Baker. Some older papers are in better condition than the newer ones because they were made with cotton instead of wood pulp, he added.


The Power of Volunteers and Altruism

Utah’s long-established partnership with FamilySearch has an important benefit to the record keeper—cost savings. FamilySearch’s services are free. States, counties, municipalities, churches, archives, libraries, and museums, from small to large, often find their preservation budgets to be lean. Smith-Mansfield says she’s found sympathetic ears in the Utah legislature when seeking preservation funds, but the archives have had to compete against dwindling resources, especially after the 2008 recession. “I know there is never enough money to go around. There never is,” she said.

Despite money restrictions, she has found that the cost savings of working with qualified volunteers, such as those from FamilySearch, can be significant. The volunteers in the volunteer program at the Utah State Archives, which includes FamilySearch and other volunteers, contributed in-kind services valued at more than $105,000 in labor costs in 2015 and more than $132,000 in 2014.

In Alaska, state archivist Dean Dawson told a local newspaper that FamilySearch’s volunteer work preserving more than 1.1 million birth, death, probate, and other historical records likely saved $1 million.

Deputy County Clerk Lynn Taylor of Weber County, Utah, located about 40 miles north of Salt Lake City, reported his county received estimates of $10,000 to digitize its 200,000 paper and microfilmed marriage certificates. “It would have been a significant financial challenge to do that. We would have to do it eventually, but we would still be trying to find the money in the budget. FamilySearch enabled us to just make it happen,” he said.

The Ongoing Work of Preservation and Storage

Digitization is only part of the preservation equation—and not the largest expense. In the summer of 2015 at a FamilySearch workshop given for clerks and judges from 14 Texas counties, Waters gave a presentation that compared a family’s purchase of a dog to the efforts of digitizing, preserving, and publishing records: “Initially, the family thinks its biggest expense is buying the dog,” he said. However, to properly care for the pet, the real costs come when the family has to feed and water the dog daily; pay for proper medical care; buy leashes, toys, and a license; and pay to fix any destruction caused by the dog. “The real costs accumulate after the initial investment,” he said.

It’s the same with electronic preservation. After the records’ digitization, FamilySearch also must properly store the electronic, archive-quality copies by considering proper temperature, humidity, and light. FamilySearch’s Rob Jackson said these genealogical records and microfilm are stored appropriately in the Granite Mountain Records Vault, located in a canyon east of Salt Lake City, and digital copies are stored on servers in several US locations. These copies are backups to the originals and are given to the clients for free and are available if the client’s original becomes damaged or lost.

“Electronic copies face their own deterioration factors. Computer bits eventually rot, leaking away the electrical charges used to store data over the years, and the moving parts in a hard drive fail if they sit idle for too long,” said FamilySearch’s Waters. “Even CDs, DVDs, and other popular storage media show noticeable signs of degradation within just a few years. Not to mention they become obsolete as preservation or storage technology evolves.”


David Bird, a Gonzales County, Texas, judge, helped organize a summer workshop focusing on records preservation after agreeing to have FamilySearch digitize and preserve the county’s 674,000 vital, land, probate, and criminal records in an 18-month project. “We have the original land grant records (dating to 1825). All of these items are very, very old, and we wanted to make certain that we have these documents digitized,” Judge Bird said.

Bird said the expense of preservation, coupled with an unsatisfactory experience in previous preservation efforts, made Gonzales County officials eager to partner with FamilySearch. “It was an easy sale with me.”

“In today’s world, archives are deep into the arena of electronic preservation because they have to be,” Smith-Mansfield said. “Think of the first computers. I had a Wang and the floppy disks. Media changes. It’s a never-ending process for archives to preserve electronic records.”

FamilySearch officials vow to be continually on the forefront of preservation that adapts to different formats as technology changes and to act as a free resource for record keepers. How can FamilySearch offer its services for free? FamilySearch’s expenses are covered by “the goodwill gifts and offerings of those who believe in the importance of family relationships,” de Jong said.

FamilySearch, a global charity sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is powered by hundreds of thousands of volunteers on the ground and online. This charity has invested heavily in preserving the genealogically significant historical records of the world and providing improved access to them for more than 100 years. (To volunteer, go to


Importance of Families

This Church teaches that family and knowing one’s family connections are critical to healthy societies. The more an individual or a family knows about their ancestor connections, the better prepared that person is for life’s challenges. This knowledge provides a deepened sense of identity and a legacy of accountability.

Bruce Feiler, a best-selling author and New York Times family columnist, echoed that concept at the 2016 RootsTech Conference, agreeing that family history resonates within a family. Feiler quoted a study conducted by psychologists Marshall P. Duke and Robyn Fivush of Emory University about children’s resilience and the intergenerational self. According to Feiler, the researchers found that the children who knew more about their family’s history “had a sense that they were part of an intergenerational self; a narrative that goes back deep in time.”

That belief is the reason that volunteers like Kenalou and Robert Evers of Leamington, Utah, have chosen to spend their retirement years traveling to places such as Ohio, Idaho, and Wyoming, and to every county in Utah. With a specialized camera, portable scanner, and laptop provided by FamilySearch, and with FamilySearch’s proprietary software for digitizing microfilm, the Everses convert birth and death records, marriage certificates, and probate records to digital form.

In all of this travel and work, they pay their own living expenses. Why have they volunteered for the past seven years at their own expense? “It makes us feel good. We’re involved in the worthwhile endeavor of connecting families together,” Kenalou said.


How You Can Make a Difference

In select areas in the US, FamilySearch International is enlisting members of local communities to help them connect with local record custodians, identify historic records repositories, and help with the actual digital preservation work.

1. Connections with key people. Do you know someone in your network of family, friends, or colleagues who is a custodian of records (birth, marriage, death, court, other)? Or perhaps who understands how decisions regarding records are made and can influence such decisions?

2. Find Local Opportunities. Tell FamilySearch about genealogically significant record collections that need to be digitally preserved. You might be asked to help provide a listing of the collections to ensure they haven’t already been photographed.

3. Become a Records Preservation Volunteer. FamilySearch can provide training to local volunteers to help prepare documents to be digitized or operate its digital camera equipment used to digitally preserve and publish historic records online.

Contact FamilySearch

To find out more about the free preservation services provided by FamilySearch, call toll free 1-844-326-4478 or email:

Useful Links and Sources

  1. Elements of a Good Records Preservation Strategy (Downloadable PDF) 
  2. Records Preservation and Access Committee
  3. National Personnel Records Center
  4. Granite Mountain Records Vault: Video Tour of How FamilySearch digitizes the world's records for online access
  5. FamilySearch Archive Services
  6. FamilySearch Online Records Facts and Figures
  7. Analysis of Current Digital Preservation Policies: Archives, Libraries and Museums
  8. Smithsonian Institution Archives Preservation
  9. Library of Congress: Preserving Books Online
  10. Digitizing for Access and Preservation: Strategies of the Library of Congress
  11. Northeast Document Preservation Center: Preservation Planning
  12. News: Archives of Michigan hacks into history
  13. News article: County's History Going Global
  14. Mormons indexing, digitizing old Ohio court documents
  15. News: Local couple organizes county court records
  16. News: Millions of images, one Alaska

About the Author 

Angelyn Nelson Hutchinson is a former reporter, city editor and assistant managing editor of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, Utah. Contact her at:



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About FamilySearch

FamilySearch International is the largest genealogy organization in the world. FamilySearch is a nonprofit, volunteer-driven organization sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Millions of people use FamilySearch records, resources, and services to learn more about their family history. To help in this great pursuit, FamilySearch and its predecessors have been actively gathering, preserving, and sharing genealogical records worldwide for over 100 years. Patrons may access FamilySearch services and resources free online at or through over 4,983 family history centers in 129 countries, including the main Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.