Why the Mormons’ digitization project is BIG news for family historians

Why the Mormons’ digitization project is BIG news for family historians

The family historian’s favourite religionists, the Mormons (or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as they officially prefer), have dispatched 200 teams around the world to photograph vital genealogical documents to add to their vast, free-to-view, online archive.

The camera teams are visiting churches and archives in 45 countries to photograph census records, birth, marriage and death certificates, wills, immigration, military and property records, and other vital records maintained by local, state, and national governments.  The microfilm images are being sent, at a rate of around 300 a day, to the Mormons’ HQ at Salt Lake City, Utah, where they will be made available to the public at no charge on FamilySearch.org.

The Mormons’ motivation for doing this is their desire to baptize the dead by proxy, which they view as a must to enter the Kingdom of God (apparently, though, the dead can choose to accept or reject baptism done on their behalf).  This isn’t the strangest aspect of the religion, which was dreamed up by Joseph Smith in 1830.  His vision of an angel, who told him about ‘golden plates’ buried in upstate New York containing the chronicles of ancient American prophets, led him to publish the Book of Mormon – his ‘translation’ of the fabled golden plates.

Today the Mormon church has 14.4 million members worldwide, including recent presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, and is the 4th largest Christian denomination in the U.S.  It also has estimated assets of $30 billion and an annual revenue of $5 billion, which dwarfs the $1.6 billion Primera recently paid for Ancestry.com, the world’s largest for-profit genealogy company and FamilySearch’s nearest ‘rival’.  This kind of financial clout has allowed the Mormons to amass, since 1894, the greatest genealogical archive in the world, including 2.5 million rolls of microfilm and 1 million microfiche, equalling around 3.8 billion pages of records, from over 110 countries worldwide, which researchers can access it at no cost, either online or in person at more than 4,500 family history centres in 70 countries.

In addition to the latest worldwide trawl for records, which hopes to amass 80 million images, FamilySearch is in the process of digitizing its remaining back catalogue of microfilm and will have posted a further 320 million images online this year alone.  Anyone who has ever visited a Mormon family history centre will vouch for the quality of the records held on its microfilm collection.  I once visited my local branch to track down a copy of the will of my most distant recorded ancestor – Nicholas Rimmer 1657-1717, a yeoman farmer in the village of Allerton, now a modern day suburb of Liverpool.  Armed with a microfilm reference number from Lancashire Will Search, I was able to view an image of the original and photocopy it.  This is the copy and my attempt to transcribe it:

Not only did this will record unlock the names of Nicholas’ wife and children as his beneficiaries, it also give a brief but fascinating insight into his life and time.  The prospect of soon being able to access such records for free, from the comfort of your own home, is an exciting one.  I hope they turn up your very own ‘golden plates’.

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