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Conversion of Microfilms to Digital Records at SLC

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By Visitor - Posted on 17 March 2006

For your information, if you haven't read the latest on this project, I'm forwarding a message posted yesterday at the genealogia.org.mx group:

On 3/16/06, Administrador - Genealogia.org.mx wrote:

Unlocking the Vault: Conversion to Digital Records is Progressing
By Brittany Karford, Church Magazines
http://www.lds.org/library/display/0,4945,40-1-3384-9,00.html

Members may not have to wonder what lies behind the 14-ton vault door
at the Church's Granite Mountain Vault Records (GMVR) facility for much
longer. In as little as 10 years, much of its genealogical collection
may be at their fingertips.

The billions of names preserved on microfilmed records at the vault are
being converted to digital images that can eventually be viewed online
at FamilySearch.org and ultimately searched in and linked to an online
index. The process of digitizing the microfilm is now faster than ever
through a "bleeding edge" technology system called FamilySearch™
Scanning.

"I call it unlocking the vault," says Heath Nielson, the
program's lead software engineer. "I cannot wait for the day when
accessibility to these records becomes available to all."

When that day comes, the records will be available to everyone, both
Latter-day Saints and the public-"God's children
everywhere"-according to the project team. And for those
researching family history under either title, it will mean no more
microfilm, and no more eyes strained from looking at film under dim
light.

The vision, says Brent Thompson, director of records preservation, is
that in the future members in Lima, Peru, who now wait up to six or
eight weeks for microfilm, will be able to go to a family history
center or anywhere with Internet access and look at records with the
click of a button.

It is a giant first step toward putting most of the family history
collection of the GMRV online. Online images and indexes of birth,
marriage, and death records from all over the world may altogether
change how family history work is done. Currently, only a minority of
members pursue family history work, but the accessibility enabled
through FamilySearch Scanning will make it simple for anyone with
Internet access to get involved.

Brother Thompson believes they will, though at first he didn't dream
digitizing the collection would be possible.

"I couldn't imagine it possible in my lifetime," he says. "I
couldn't imagine it possible in my children's lifetime."

At the rate they were going prior to the FamilySearch Scanning
technology, it was estimated that it would take 120 years to convert
applicable films to digital. That same projection is now less than 30
years, perhaps sooner with planned expansions of additional scanners.
The team that couldn't fathom living to see the end result will now be
the team that will someday complete the digitizing process.

So how does it work? One vault worker loads rolls of film into a pod of
scanners and presses "Go". The scanner then takes one comprehensive
video picture and transfers that continuous file to another computer,
where an application analyzes the contrast of the ribbon for quality
and splits each frame into individual JPEGs (a digital file of an
image). To finish, a good pair of eyes reviews the job and processes
the newly created JPEGs. The digital images are then readied for use by
the Church's online indexing program, where volunteers over time will
help extract the birth, marriage, and death information from the images
to create free searchable indexes online (like the 1880 U.S., 1880
Canada, and 1881 British Censuses currently found at FamilySearch.org).

This is a great improvement over the process used just a little more
than a year ago, where one person had to be present throughout the
entire process, manually scrutinizing each frame. Through three to four
feet of film, one technician would adjust the light and contrast with
the film density changes, watching every image come across the screen
and cutting it out. "We thought, 'How can we apply computer
technology to save these poor people's eyes?' " explains Derek
Dobson, product manager. "And how can we more quickly convert these
microfilms to digital images so people can access them more readily on
the Internet?"

Enter Heath Nielson and a team of engineers. Not only does the computer
system they developed speed the process up, but by taking the frames on
a continuous file, it retains the contextual information of each slide
as a piece of a whole.

"In the computer, it's not piecemeal. You can look at a single
frame next to its neighbors, and it tells you something about it,"
Brother Nielson says. Also, with the manual process there was no way of
knowing if they had missed an image, something that is not a factor
with the continuous file.

Though the technology is not entirely novel, their ability to act and
the Church's ability to execute and implement the technology for its
intended purposes makes them pioneers in the field. Yet setting the
program into motion has not been without its glitches.

"It's something I still feel fervently about," Brother Nielson
says. "I knew that if this was something we needed to do, there would
be a way provided." And there was. In the hard and frustrating times,
he said they would find just what mechanism they needed and receive
help from specific individuals just when they needed it-one step at a
time.

On just four scanners, they have tripled output-yet they've still
only completed four percent of the targeted films at the vault, and
more films are coming in. This year alone, they expect to acquire an
additional 28,000, says Wayne Crosby, general manager of GMVR. They
have a lot of work to do.

The good news is they are two to three years away from completing the
transition from microfilm cameras to digital cameras. When this
transition is complete, only the existing microfilm collection will
need to be converted to digital.

Film and microfiche will continue to be stored in the vault, even after
their digital conversion. "The polyester film lasts 300 to 500 years
and will continue to be used for long-term preservation," Brother
Crosby explains, noting that the digitizing of the records is to make
them more accessible to family history researchers, not to make
preservation easier.

And so it's back into the long, chilly corridors deep within Granite
Mountain for not only the polyester films, but the new digital records
as well. There they will reside in one of six 190-foot long rooms.
About 1 million rolls of film are held in each vault, maintained at a
constant 55 degrees and 30 percent humidity, ideal for preservation.

>From the doorway, the row after row of monstrous file cabinets creates
the impression of having fallen into Alice and Wonderland and stepped
into a strange office where filing cabinets stretch from floor to
ceiling.

But the vault where the digital images are stored is for the most part
empty (One DVD can hold up to 4 digitized microfilms). A few short
cabinets hold what's been converted so far, and the expansiveness of
the room whispers of a future when it will be filled. When that day
comes, most members will be able to access the digital images of the
films anywhere they have Internet access-from their homes or local
Family History Center-through the Church's genealogical Web site,
http://www.familysearch.org; and the staff at GMVR won't be bundling in
their coats as often to retrieve fiche and film.

"Think how easy that will be," says Paul Nauta, public relations
manager for the Family and Church History Department. "In the future
individuals anywhere in the world through the Internet will be able to
search the majority of the GMRV's film collection and the billions of
names currently hidden in them-all from the convenience of their
homes or family history center."

"Won't it be nice if in between naps and playing with my children, I
can jump on the Internet and do family history research," says
Brother Nielson.

"This technology is the answer to our hopes, our dreams, and our
prayers," Brother Thompson adds. He smiles, looking out one of the
main office windows-or rather, a giant half-dome portal that opens
the granite slab to the north-facing alpine slope across the canyon.
About to step out of the paper-and-film world that has shaped his
profession, he reflects on the mountainside.

"What a view," he says, "and what a great resource this is for
the Church. What an inspiration it was to build this facility in a
solid wall of granite."
http://www.lds.org/library/display/0,4945,40-1-3384-9,00.html

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