A tipster alerted me today of a recent article in the Salt Lake Tribune.
Online genealogy just got easier
By Peggy Fletcher Stack
The Salt Lake Tribune
For the first time ever, the LDS Church is joining forces with various archives, libraries and family-history Web sites in an effort to open a floodgate of free records and images onto the Internet.
Under the Records Access program, unveiled this week at a conference of genealogists in Richmond, Va., the collaboration will provide free services to archives and other records custodians who wish to digitize, index, publish and preserve their collections.
Here's how it works: An army of volunteers will continue to index data from 2.4 million rolls of microfilm being housed at the LDS Church's Granite Mountain Records Vault, as well as digitize and index data from other sources. They will collect information already indexed at other sites. Then the records will be posted on the church's Web site, FamilySearch.org, and opened to the public.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' new program will speed up the process of indexing and posting billions of records and reduce costs for each party involved, said Steve W. Anderson, marketing manager for FamilySearch.org.
"It is Google with a twist," Anderson said. "It is both a content Web site and a portal to other sites."
For the past decade, Ancestry.com has spent $100 million digitizing and indexing records from archives in many countries. It already has posted more than 6 billion records online. While it is considered the market leader of online genealogy, Ancestry is not among the church's partners in its Records Access program.
Let me interrupt to comment here.
Is Ancestry.com not a part of the Records Access program? If Ancestry.com isn't an official part of the Records Access program, I think the program is at least an outgrowth of Ancestry.com's partnership with the Church. Word is, the Church gave Ancestry.com access to microfilm masters for imaging and indexing and in return Ancestry.com is providing FamilySearch patrons in certain situations access to certain indexes and images.
But it is really confusing. Services provided at the Family History Library (FHL) are different from FHCs, which are different from the services at FamilySearch.org, where patrons must be members of the Church for the special access. Meanwhile, back to the Tribune...
"There are gazillions of records that all of us need to get online. We are thrilled that others can get into it. It's only going to help us as a company," Sullivan said. "The church's model to have volunteers, nonpaid indexers, is intriguing but unproven and has a ways to go before it could scale to the way we digitize records."
This little sentence may be easy to overlook, but it is the pivot point upon which the future of genealogy websites turns. How quickly can the Church index records using its army of volunteers? How long did the Church take to index the U.S. 1880 census? Sure, FamilySearch Indexing is a giant leap forward. But how long have they been working on the U.S. 1900 census and when will they finish?
While it remains to be seen exactly how the Records Access program will function, it is said that the Church will provide images to the commercial site, which will index the images (alone or with Church help) and provide the index back to the Church. Users at FamilySearch.org can search the indexes for no charge and can find links to the images on the commercial site. The commercial site can then make money via advertising, selling accessing to the images, or in any other way they can find.
From the viewpoint of a non-commercial firm, this model looks perfect. But since the cost of imaging is almost nothing, and the costs of indexing are enormous, one can well imagine that this business plan doesn't appeal very well to Ancestry.com. (One rumor even says the Church asked Ancestry.com for "indexes" to its OneWorldTree offering as a requirement to be an official partner. I find this hard to believe. Trees are an extremely valuable commodity in the commercial genealogy field and it would be quite naive if the Church asked Ancestry.com for tree information.)
Anything the church does, though, will move the whole industry forward.
The Records Access program's first project is Revolutionary War pension records, which contain information on an individual soldier's rank, unit, date mustered in and mustered out, basic biographical information, medical information and military service assignments. These files often include supporting documents, such as narratives of events during service, marriage certificates, birth records, death certificates, pages from family Bibles, family letters, depositions of witnesses, affidavits, discharge papers and other supporting papers.
As part of the agreement, FamilySearch will digitize the images currently held in the National Archives Record and Administration's (NARA) collection in Washington, D.C., and Footnote.com will create the electronic indexes.
When complete, the images and indexes of this vast collection of information will be viewable at the more than 4,500 LDS Church-run family-history centers around the world. They also will be available online at FamilySearch.org and through project partner Footnote.com.
"With this system, everybody wins," Anderson said. "Archives get their collections digitized, genealogy Web sites like Footnote.com get to post their records and users get records that wouldn't be available otherwise."
Did I miss anything? Did Ancestry.com make any announcements at the conference mentioned? If I had a nickel for every time that Ancestry.com outdid a competitor and then failed to tell anyone about it, I'd be retired by now. (OK, maybe I am retired now, but don't let that derail my point here.) It would be just like Ancestry.com to skip last week's opportunities and next week release something more impressive than Revolutionary War Pension Records.
Not that I've heard anything.... ;-)