LDS Church celebrates 120th anniversary of Genealogical Society, now FamilySearch
PROVO – An obscure nonprofit group, known as the Genealogical Society of Utah, organized on Nov. 13, 1894.
It’s charge, under the direction of its new president, Franklin D. Richards: gather family histories and historical records.
Since that humble beginning 120 years ago, the name has changed to FamilySearch International, and it is now a nonprofit charity for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. FamilySearch has grown from a little organization of genealogists into the premier global leader in online genealogy research, touting billions of records and millions of subscribers.
“The Genealogical Society of Utah was formed in 1894 under the direction of Wilford Woodruff, then president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to assist members of the faith to seek out their ancestors and preserve their family trees for future generations,” said Paul Nauta, FamilySearch spokesman.
During the Great Depression in the 1930s, interest in genealogy increased. Previous to that time, involvement remained low. The lack of work, and lots of time on folks’ hands, were the impetus for some neglected research to be done. The LDS Church reports that during that time, its genealogical library was often filled to capacity.
By 1938, the use of microfilm was introduced. Documentation of that kind — using special cameras — was considered revolutionary for the time. If properly stored, the microfilm would be preserved for up to 500 years, according to Nauta.
It was 25 years later, in 1963, when the society completed the Granite Mountain Records Vault in Salt Lake City. It is a climate-controlled vault that provides perfect conditions for long-term storage of microfilmed records. More than 2.4 million rolls of film from more than 120 countries continue to be stored in the vaults — which some call the “cave of wonders.”
Older members of the LDS Church will remember the big push in the 1960s and 70s to get four generations researched and paperwork turned into the church. Genealogy classes were offered during Sunday School to help members learn how to research and submit their work.
“Now we have Sunday family history classes that teach how to create family trees,” Nauta said. “What started out on index cards went to microfilm, to discs, and is now at our fingertips. We migrate with technology. Today’s technology makes the genealogy experience richer.
“FamilySearch continues that early research in full force. It uses proprietary digital cameras to preserve records from around the world and get them online quickly. FamilySearch has 285 camera teams working daily in 45 countries and publishes nearly 100 million new images of historic records every year. FamilySearch is also digitally converting its enormous microfilm collection for online use.”
It wasn’t until 1984, under the name of Personal Ancestral File, that the society developed the first desktop genealogy management software. FamilySearch was launched in 1999, and is now available in 10 languages.
”People today have such a vast reservoir of resources at FamilySearch.org to draw from that many historical gems which were previously buried in obscurity are now readily available online,” said FamilySearch Chief Genealogy Officer David E. Rencher in a press release. “The family links that can be made from these rich resources will blossom into the most complete picture we’ve ever had of the human family.”
In 2013, FamilySearch introduced its free online Family Tree service and Memories feature. Finding family members and adding personal items became much easier.
”These online tools allow users to freely build, preserve and share their family trees, photos, stories and historical documents collaboratively,” Nauta said. “Individuals and families have already contributed over a billion records.”
Nauta said members of the church have always wanted to collect and submit stories and photo histories, but it has not been until the advent of current technology the church has accepted them.
Now, an individual’s stories and personal photos don’t have to have approval.
”It used to be the church would only accept photos when they were bound in a book,” Nauta said. “Or if they were related to church history.”