John Alexander of FamilySearch and Ross Allred of GenealogyBank presented a session titled “The Future of Genealogy – Indexed Obituaries: Learn How FamilySearch and GenealogyBank Have Partnered in Creating an Indexed Obituary Collection.”
NewsBank is the parent company of GenealogyBank. They have been in business for more than 40 years. They tried to acquire content for professors and students to do research. They have been trying to acquire all the news media tat is out there so that professors and students could do research. They were not in the consumer space, but they noticed that about 30% of all their searches were for single names in obituaries. Who do you think was doing all that searching? Genealogists, of course. Seeing the market, they created GenealogyBank.
Their modern obituaries (starting in 1977) are not from scanned images, but were “born digital.” They have the Social Security Death Index, but they estimate their obituary collection covers roughly 90% of all deaths. Allred was tasked with finding a way to extract the information from the obituaries. If my notes are correct, GenealogyBank currently has 47 million digital obituaries and add three to four million a year.
For decades FamilySearch has focused on traditional records like vitals and censuses. Increasingly there are privacy restrictions that protect those records. They started looking for substitutes and found that newspapers are rich in content, stories, and relationships. But there were issues. The records were narrative text versus fielded documents. Indexing volunteers might not be willing to index complicated texts. FamilySearch had acquired very few newspapers and it would be very difficult to try and visit the large number of publishers. Newspaper publishers aren’t interested in giving content to FamilySearch for free. Many had already licensed their content to other online publishers exclusively. A partnership between FamilySearch and NewsBank served the needs of both organizations.
And while there is lots of great content in newspapers, the two decided to begin with obituaries. They also decided to begin with born-digital obituaries rather than historical obits. Digital obits are more modern and bridge the gap between modern vitals and the 1940 census. NewsBank receives 10,000+ of them daily. The goal is to hand these off to FamilySearch and get them quickly searchable.
They will start indexing historical newspaper obituaries beginning in 2015. By about 1876 obits contained rich content. But they will be a challenge. It would be unwieldy to hand a page of obituaries off to an indexer. There are an average of 12-18 obits per newspaper. They are figuring out how to cut out individual obits to make them available to indexers. FamilySearch initially thought they would do a light index: just the decedents name and basic vitals. Ultimately, they decided to index as many relationships as are present. They have found an average of 7.3 named relatives in each obit. The number was much higher in Idaho, where they averaged 27 named relatives.
About 100 million names were indexed in 2014, about 90 million of them from GenealogyBank obits That’s an average of 600 thousand names indexed daily from about 80 to 85 thousand names per hour.
Searching and showing obituaries is just like any other record. Search results look the same. Record details look the same. The record detail page provides a link to the full obituary for GenealogyBank subscribers. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can follow a link to an image containing the full text of the obituary. (Remember, these are born-digital obituaries. There is no image of a newspaper page.)
There is still a lot more newspaper content beyond obituaries. It’s now just a matter of prioritizing the work. They are looking forward to starting with births and marriages, especially where they don’t have access to the vitals. There is also military information, probate notices, photograph, stories, social notices, and more. There are also ethnic and international newspapers.