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The Genealogical Revolution Will Be Digitized
July 27, 2008 12:37 PM   Subscribe

For decades, the LDS church microfilmed old records of genealogical interest and stashed them in the Granite Mountain Record Vault for safekeeping. Copies could be ordered and viewed at local Family History Centers. Now, through massive digitization and volunteer indexing efforts, those records are starting to come online.

It was once thought that it would take 120 years to scan the 2 million+ microfilm rolls housed in the vault, but by 2006 it was estimated that "much" of the collection would be digitized in "as little as 10 years" (some technical details here and here (both PDF)). A double-blind volunteer indexing project was launched, with 140,000 people signing up by May 2008. The fruits of their labor may be seen (and searched) on the FamilySearch Record Search pilot site. Partnerships with commercial companies and archives large and small will add to the collection records freshly digitized from the source, some of which may be indexed online but free to view only at Family History Centers and the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.

The resources collected by the Mormons are available to genealogists of all faiths. There is no proselytizing at the Family History Centers, though church members will answer questions about Mormonism if asked. The Mormons' interest in genealogy stems from their belief in baptizing the dead by proxy—a practice disturbing to some people of other faiths. The LDS church has been criticized for baptizing Holocaust victims, and the Vatican recently directed Catholic dioceses not to allow Mormons access to parish registers. Mormons counter that the dead are only offered the option of baptism, and are permitted to decline.
posted by Knappster (38 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
Why genealogy is so important to the Mormons.

Also, Swedish genealogists are very interested in the Mormons' genealogical records because of the 1+ million Swedes who emigrated to the US during the 19th century.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 12:58 PM on July 27, 2008


It's the primary function of the LDS's missionaries to gather this type of data from around the world. I read in one of my sociology texts years ago that they have more complete genealogical records for the Chinese than even the PRC.

Of all the mixed legacies of the world's religions, this archive is perhaps one of the more objectively useful and will hopefully be around long after the Mormon faith has gone the way of the dodo.
posted by wfrgms at 1:16 PM on July 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


this archive is perhaps one of the more objectively useful and will hopefully be around long after the Mormon faith has gone the way of the dodo.

You know who else would have found this to be useful?
posted by Brian B. at 1:28 PM on July 27, 2008


It's the primary function of the LDS's missionaries to gather this type of data from around the world.

Your statement isn't entirely accurate. The majority of LDS missionaries are sent out to proselytize. These are the young men in black suits and ties you may see riding bicycles through your neighborhood. They do not seek out genealogical data and do no genealogical work.

A small sub-segment of missionaries, consisting primarily of older retired individuals, serve genealogy-specific missions. If you visit an LDS Family History Center or the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, the staff at these centers are missionaries serving this type of mission.
posted by fatbobsmith at 1:31 PM on July 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


You know who else would have found this to be useful?

My grandma?
posted by The World Famous at 1:34 PM on July 27, 2008 [2 favorites]


You know who else would have found this to be useful?

Icelandic scientists?
posted by Knappster at 1:35 PM on July 27, 2008


No, my grandma. She even traced herself back to Domesday.
posted by yhbc at 1:40 PM on July 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Mormons counter that the dead are only offered the option of baptism, and are permitted to decline."

This sounds more complicated than your regular DNR order or Living Will.

So, ah, what percentage of the dead decline Mormon baptism? Surely more than, say, the percent voting against Mugabe in the last election, right?
posted by orthogonality at 1:42 PM on July 27, 2008


The Mormons' interest in genealogy stems from their belief in baptizing the dead by proxy.

While that is not false, it's not the primary motivation behind it. The motivation comes more from Latter-day Saints views on the family relationship being eternal, and that knowing who you 567th grandfather is is just as important as knowing who your cousins are. I won't get into the doctrine and all that, but I just wanted to say that it's much much more complex than simple baptisms.
posted by blue_beetle at 1:42 PM on July 27, 2008


So, ah, what percentage of the dead decline Mormon baptism?

Nearly all, I suspect. I would expect the acceptance rate in the hereafter to be somewhere near the level of full church activity in the here and now, which, compared to the total population, is very, very low.
posted by The World Famous at 1:47 PM on July 27, 2008


The Mormons' interest in genealogy stems from their belief in baptizing the dead by proxy—a practice disturbing to some people of other faiths.

Disturbing? They're just jealous. Joseph Smith's solution is complete and utter brilliance.

No one else in 2000 years of Christianity came up with a better solution to the "what happened to all those innocent souls before Jesus came along to save them" than that good old fraudster Joseph Smith.

It is also hugely attractive that I, as an atheist and multi-talented sinner, can live and die as an atheist and sinner and my progeny down the ages - or people I'm not even friggin' related to - can pray my damned soul up to heaven - or at least up a few levels on Mormon divinity ladder to where the climate is more friendly. This is awesome. Awesome. Awesome.

Only in America friends. Only in America.
posted by three blind mice at 1:48 PM on July 27, 2008 [8 favorites]


So, ah, what percentage of the dead decline Mormon baptism?

Nearly all, I suspect.

Of course all of this is meaningless if the Mormons are wrong. (As I am betting.)

But on the other hand, if the Mormons were right and you find yourself in the lowest level of Mormon hell, who's gonna turn down a "get out of hell free card"?
posted by three blind mice at 1:57 PM on July 27, 2008


My grandma?

No, silly, Eva Braun!

They not only baptized them, but married them too.
posted by Brian B. at 2:09 PM on July 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


who's gonna turn down a "get out of hell free card"?

Mormon theology is, predictably, more complicated than that.
posted by The World Famous at 2:10 PM on July 27, 2008


Why genealogy is important to one guy who is not a Mormon: I believe that North Americans especially should know where we came from and how we got here. Most of us are ignorant to the circumstances of our ancestors, especially if they arrived here more than three generations ago. We don't know that they were people who spoke a different language, maybe German or Gaelic, or practiced a minority religion. My father was born in rural Southern Ontario. I had the somewhat dismissive belief that his family had always been farmers or later on factory workers, that no one had ever went to school, or explored any other opportunities. Once I began looking I learned that many in the first generations had traveled far, taken big chances, made a difference. One cousin in his extended family was Tommy Douglas' personal doctor, and an adviser on early Medicare policy. Others were moving all over North America looking for a good life. So, I went from looking at my ancestors as nothing but dirt farmers to discovering all kinds of diversity in the shape of their lives, fortune and misfortune. It's one way to begin to see the potential in people, you can see the struggles of your ancestors in today's immigrants who come here with little, in people who live in countries that don't have the opportunities that North Americans have.

So I'm glad to see the LDS bringing more source documents online. These are public historical documents that should be accessible to everyone. But the search can still be frustrating. Grandmothers everywhere are still duplicating each other's research, stuffing it in drawers. Next I'd like to see a site that allows us to reconstruct the puzzle online, to link instances of an individual across documents, from their childhood in Scotland to their immigration to Canada to their adulthood moving west across America, all revealed in the census returns and birth, marriage, death records. Then to be able augment those linkages with the family stories and photographs and 100 year old stuff we discover in attics.

When I opened this thread I expected commentary about Mormon doctrine weirdness, but where's all the snark about a data driven website being in displayed in Flash? Anyway, anyone new to this who has an American heritage might want to search the 1900 census for ancestors, as it is fully indexed and displays the original returns. Right now, the information available for various documents is inconsistent. It's a work in progress.
posted by TimTypeZed at 2:54 PM on July 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


@ blue_beetle

I had hoped the post and discussion would be more genealogical than theological, but your point is taken. I phrased it as I did because the analysis of critics generally stops at "They're baptizing by Jewish grandparents!" and not at "They view the family relationship as eternal!"
posted by Knappster at 3:18 PM on July 27, 2008


Mormon theology is, predictably, more complicated than that.

So is thermodynamics but you can sum it up pretty accurately with a few equations.

I had hoped the post and discussion would be more genealogical than theological,

Whilst the information IS used for genealogical purposes by Mormons and non-Mormons alike - the Mormon purpose is purely theological. That's what's so cool about it! Some of those people in that database have been sitting in at a less than comfortable level of divinity for long enough and by collecting those names and doing the posthumous baptism (and subsequent upgrades) all of them can have their lot improved.

The Catholics can't do that for me so who needs them!
posted by three blind mice at 3:38 PM on July 27, 2008


I had hoped the post and discussion would be more genealogical than theological,

Genealogy is traditionally theological in a large (messiah predicting) and a small sense (church record keeping), going back to the oldest religions, especially Judaism. Royal pedigrees in Europe have been fudged like the religious relics they are, and any record is genetically unreliable past a certain point (because people bury their sins). The records exist in part because it always served a political method related to purity or birthright, a nice way to racially legitimize things in a mongrel world. It's refreshing that people think a public database is so harmless to them, sort of like bungee jumping over the killing fields. What if your boss can't find you on it? Oh well, we can always fudge some more.

FYI, here is what the New Testament says about it. Not a believer, I.

I Timothy 1:4
Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith: so do.

Titus 3:9
But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and vain.

posted by Brian B. at 4:10 PM on July 27, 2008


FYI, here is what the New Testament says about it.

Since the New Testament starts with a genealogy, I hardly think it as simple as that. But this probably isn't the time to get into what Paul was referring to in your citations.

I appreciate the link. I've been trying for some time to figure out who my great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather's parents were. This didn't get me there yet, but maybe it will in the future.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 4:35 PM on July 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


But this probably isn't the time to get into what Paul was referring to in your citations.

Except that Paul didn't write them, and New Testament conflict doesn't alter the original meaning unless you believe it must.
posted by Brian B. at 4:49 PM on July 27, 2008


the Mormon purpose is purely theological

I would accept that, with the caveat that the Mormon genealogists I've known enjoy it way more than their religious obligations would require.
posted by Knappster at 4:58 PM on July 27, 2008


The Mormons' interest in genealogy stems from their belief in baptizing the dead by proxy—a practice disturbing to some people of other faiths.

I should think it's only disturbing if one gives credence to their faith. Most of those who are of other faiths figure the Mormons are plain batshitinsane, so my guess is that those who are upset by this practice would also be upset were Bozo the Clown to claim to have intervened in their loved one's afterlife.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:05 PM on July 27, 2008


I support this because it's awfully annoying that the for-profit Ancestry.com juggernaut controls most of the census transcriptions. I once considered starting a project that proved remarkably similar to what the LDS did that had the simple goal of producing a Creative Commons licensed census transcription database.
posted by dhartung at 5:23 PM on July 27, 2008


Now Identity thieves can find out, for free, your mother's maiden name, the city where your father was born and probably 2/3 of the questions your bank asks you on it's website.
posted by Megafly at 5:49 PM on July 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


Wow. That family search site is remarkably easy to use. I can actually see the appeal for genealogy for once... I just wish I knew my great-grandparents first names.
posted by smackfu at 6:07 PM on July 27, 2008


I think my favorite fantastical use of the Mormon genealogy occurs in Gehenna, the end-of-the-world supplement for Vampire: the Masquerade. Long story short, big badass ancient vampire-mage-thing uses the Mormon genealogy as the true name of humanity, and thus a magical conduit permitting him to cast a spell on the species itself.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:28 PM on July 27, 2008


PS, when they say Safari is an unsupported browser, the practical effect is that you can't see the control that lets you switch to the next page in the search results, which is very confusing.
posted by smackfu at 6:29 PM on July 27, 2008


Except that Paul didn't write them, and New Testament conflict doesn't alter the original meaning unless you believe it must.

In your opinion Paul didn't write them, and in your opinion, there is a conflict. If you're some kind of NT scholar, I would love to hear more from you about either of those topics.

Since you don't go for Pauline authorship (and I'll just assume that you are conversant with all the arguments pro and con in that debate, since you've chosen to take a side), you probably date the pastorals sometime in the early second century. The canonical gospels were well known by then--unlike when the undisputably Pauline letters were written, pre-gospels. So you are taking the odd position of saying that 1 Timothy and Titus took stands against genealogies as such, even though that would put it blatantly at odds with Matthew and Luke, and perhaps more on point, such OT texts as Genesis and Chronicles. This is odder still since it is 2 Timothy 3:16 (presumably from the same author as 1 Timothy) that declares all scripture useful for teaching. One would suppose that "all scripture" includes the genealogies as well.

Most scholarship that I am aware of, noting the clear link in 1 Tim 1:4 between false doctrine, myths and genealogies assume that what is in view is something like the complicated spiritual genealogies of the gnostics, tracing out the various emanations of god and speculating endlessly about the various spiritual forces influencing the earth. That fits well with the running theme in 1 Timothy about combating false teaching. There is no reputable scholarship that I am aware of that interprets those passages as being against tracing one's family through genealogical data.

So, either you are some kind of brilliant Bible scholar who is about to set the scholarship regarding the pastoral epistles on its ear with your forthcoming paper on why the second century Pauline school stood against genealogies as such, or you're just another guy who watched a few A&E specials or read some Bart Ehrman and figured that you now had a handle on the deeper matters of Christian scholarship, and could therefore start injecting out-of-context verses willy-nilly into tangentially related conversations and taking about their "original meanign" as though you had a clue, when you really, really don't.

Based on your commenting history, I have my guess, but I'd love to be surprised. It would be swell to have a brilliant Bible scholar around here.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:49 PM on July 27, 2008 [6 favorites]


One day, about two weeks ago, I spent several hours at the Family History Library in Westwood (Los Angeles), copying a few birth records from my small ancestral hometown of Nadvornaya (Nadworna), Ukraine, from a microfilm of an old notebook containing the names of all Jewish children who had their births registered in the town between 1850-1865. I was able put the 300 dpi scans of the microfilm pages directly onto my USB thumbdrive for 10 cents a page, each page having several records on it.

Now, think about that for a second, and all the amazing things that had to happen to make it possible:

- a private and yet FREE library in the middle of LA (and most other big and small American cities), with an utterly amazing collection of records available -- and anything they don't have at that branch can be special ordered for less than $10 -- not to mention a tremendous amount of books and maps
- run by a minority religious group in the US, yet they make sure to collect data for people of all religions and nationalities, without bias, even though most of it cannot possibly benefit them or their religion
- has adherents who trek into Bumblefuck towns all over the planet to make painstaking copies of every bit of data in the town archives
- managed somehow to get permission to go behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War to get some of the data out of the archives there
- terrific nearly-free technology available to all library patrons -- blank CD's, scanners, microfilm readers, modern computers with image manipulation software and FREE INTERNET ACCESS

Truly, that is a great gift to genealogists. But wait, there's more!

- free genealogy classes held at the libraries several times a day, on several topics, from newbie level to country-specific tips
- extended after-work hours on some weekdays, and open on Saturdays
- nice vending machines with fresh sandwiches and milk and a microwave available
- very nice older people who work there who would be thrilled to help you in your tedious search for your great-great-whomever -- in fact, they see it as their religious duty!

To sum up: LDS Family History Libraries = AWESOME. Sure, this updated records search website is cool too, of course, but let's not overlook the simpler pleasures in genealogically-inclined life.
posted by Asparagirl at 6:51 PM on July 27, 2008 [2 favorites]


Asparagirl, your comment reminded of me of this story about how the Mormons found spare microfilm cameras in Russia after Communism fell.
Soon after the LDS Church started doing work in Russia, it was found
they needed more cameras. At that time microfilm was still being
used, they are doing that still but are slowly upconverting the
filming to digital because it's faster and requires almost no
retakes.

They looked for cameras, but since creating indexes was common and
digitization was around the corner, there were fewer places making
cameras, so they had to improvise somehow. They found their answer in
of all places, the KGB!
posted by Knappster at 7:00 PM on July 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


In your opinion Paul didn't write them, and in your opinion, there is a conflict.

Pater, I've upset you, my apologies. I won't waste your time, I have nothing to gain by antagonizing you.
posted by Brian B. at 7:05 PM on July 27, 2008


For anyone with a library card in the Fort Worth Public Library System, you can access genealogical records through HeritageQuest online at this link. Even though I live in Fort Worth, it doesn't work unless I say I live in Benbrook (the default first item in the drop down list). Then put in your library card number (the one below the bar code on the card) and you can access HeritageQuest which includes census records that FamilySearch won't provide for free.

You can navigate to that link by going to the main Fort Worth Library site, then click on "Reference Databases" under "Information Please!" in the left-hand column, then scroll down to "History/Genealogy" and look for "HeritageQuest Online" and click on "Use at Home."
posted by Doohickie at 9:12 PM on July 27, 2008


Knappster, that's a great story -- and it means that those records I was accessing on that trip two weeks ago were probably filmed on one of those refurbished KGB cameras.

Incidentally, the head of the archives in Chisinau (Kishinev), Moldova is ex-KGB. Ask me how hard it was to get any records out of that place...
posted by Asparagirl at 10:07 PM on July 27, 2008


@TimTypeZed

Ancestry.com has started something similar to what you wish for. I don't use the pay version, but still find it a brilliant tool for managing my family tree and finding hints for other places to search. Every member of your tree gets their own profile page where you can attach pictures, stories, audio and list major events,occupations and so forth. Highly recommend it (am not affiliated at all). Also seems to be the major player on the web so hopefully my information won't disappear over night in some dot.com collapse.
posted by DOUBLE A SIDE at 12:09 AM on July 28, 2008


I signed up for Ancestry's Family Trees & Connections a couple years ago, just to see how it worked. It was free but they required my credit card number. I thought that their page design was pretty, but after I entered a few people, I didn't like how I had to build it on the tree model and how they constantly hinted that there was more information behind the paid wall, so I quit using it and forgot about it. A year later I was billed $24.95. They sent notice, but by that time I was so accustomed to ignoring their spam that I didn't look at the email until after I noticed the charge on my bill. Oh well.

I wish dhartung had built his model. I too would like to see the Ancestry lose its control over public documents. The LDS will now get these indexes done using enthusiastic online volunteers, both those who belong to its church and probably many more who don't, and that will make the research process more immediate and accessible. I did some transcribing of the Ontario death records on their labs site last year. It was easy, although there seemed to be more volunteers than scans available, as I would often check for more work to see that there was none available at the time. Indexes could also have been compiled by having an online space where people could enter the ancestors they were researching into the places they were found in the documents, and linking them together. But many people doing genealogical research now resist collaboration, fearing that others less rigorous in approach than themselves will pollute their findings.
posted by TimTypeZed at 7:55 AM on July 28, 2008


Pater, I've upset you, my apologies. I won't waste your time, I have nothing to gain by antagonizing you.

No, you haven't upset me. I've just made a resolution that when someone makes a pronouncement here about some matter of Biblical interpretation, that it's worth finding out if they actually know what they are talking about or if they're just having some fun making claims they explain. It won't antagonize me at all for you to actually explain why your study has led you to believe that the pastoral epistles are against genealogies per se. If I didn't enjoy Biblical discussion, I wouldn't have earned three degrees in the field.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 10:47 AM on July 29, 2008


err, that should be "making claims they can't explain"
posted by Pater Aletheias at 10:47 AM on July 29, 2008


No, you haven't upset me. I've just made a resolution that when someone makes a pronouncement here about some matter of Biblical interpretation, that it's worth finding out if they actually know what they are talking about or if they're just having some fun making claims they explain. It won't antagonize me at all for you to actually explain why your study has led you to believe that the pastoral epistles are against genealogies per se. If I didn't enjoy Biblical discussion, I wouldn't have earned three degrees in the field.

The gist I get here is that you have never heard such a thing, because you think I authored something that is pretty much common knowledge. It was never my opinion as much as it is yours to explain, you raised the issue by affirming Paul, and now hope to make me the debate. on something so common. And, ascribing the conflict aspect to me was, again, another reason to abandon hope here. I worded it so, but didn't raise it. Obviously you can find what I'm talking with a search on the material in question.
posted by Brian B. at 3:42 PM on July 29, 2008


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