RootsTech 2012: Preserving the records
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Prophets in latter-days have set the stage for an explosion of technological capability in the preservation of family history records, an executive at FamilySearch International said.
"If we go back many decades to when the Church started collecting this information that we have now, they had no idea how it was going to be available," said S. David Burggraaf, senior vice president of product engineering for the Church-sponsored service which is the largest genealogical organization in the world.
"We have information flowing from all sorts of places; we digitized hundreds of millions of images last year," said Brother Burggraaf in a Church News interview at the media hub of the RootsTech 2012 exhibit hall.
Much of that digitization, of course, is of some of the 24 million rolls of microfilm gathered over the decades and stored at the Church's Granite Mountain Records Vault, a facility hollowed out of solid rock near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon east of Sandy, Utah, Brother Burggraaf said.
Earlier that day, FamilySearch CEO Dennis C. Brimhall had welcomed conference attendees in the keynote session, telling them that a short time ago, the conventional wisdom was that it would take 100 years to digitize the entire collection in the vault. Now, he said, a single roll can be scanned in four minutes, yielding an 80 gigabyte computer file of images that can be in turn indexed by the army of more than 200,000 volunteers who work at the project worldwide on their home computers.
Thus, Brother Burggraaf said, the entire collection in the vault could conceivably be digitized, depending on the need, within 10 to 20 years.
Even with that accomplished, though the work would still not be done. "You still have billions of people who are alive, and I think a lot of the activity, from a historical perspective, will be to capture and catalog their information, which is much more diverse, much more massive." In fact, he said, the records at the vault "will pale in comparison to the quantity of information that's going to be generated or that has started being generated in the last two decades."
The real chore, he said, will be to categorize that information, make it searchable and preserve it.
Preservation is a challenge that does not get enough attention, Brother Burggraaf said. "We could put all that information over here on this website or over there on that website. But what happens when those websites go away? The information is gone. So there's this big challenge that lies before the industry: How do you preserve the petabyte and exabyte of information that's now being generated so it can by used."
Individual Church members can help, he said, as they go into different areas of the world where preservation techniques are not so advanced. "In some areas, histories are collected orally, and as people pass away, those histories can pass away with them.
It's a blessing, Brother Burgraaf said, to have a volunteer global workforce of more than 205,000. "Wherever there's a ward, there's a family history specialist who coordinates and manages many of the activities that happen there. And the family history specialist is under the keys and authority and priesthood of the bishops and stake presidents. We support them and help them do that work."
Technology is a boon to the work of acquiring archival records today, Brother Burggraaf said, including high-end, 50 megapixel digital cameras in circulation around the world. "We've built software that allows the user to simply put a book under the camera. The software will figure out what it's looking at, center the page, deal with lighting issues, and it will take pictures as pages are turned.
The demand outpaces the need for those cameras however, so the Family History Department (FamilySearch) has been experimenting with high-end, consumer-grade cameras, less expensive but able to do an adequate job in some situations.
"Ultimately, the more people that we can get digitizing records, the more records that will be available for those who want to connect families," Brother Burggraaf said.