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."
This is a "welcome move," said Tim Sullivan, CEO of Generations Network, parent company of Ancestry.com. "We absolutely do not view the church as a competitor."
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.
"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."
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."