Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Genealogy Web sites expand research tools


Genealogy Web sites expand research tools

By JESSICA E. VASCELLARO, The Wall Street Journal
Thursday, July 6, 2006

Old family history records, from census information to draft cards, are now flooding the Internet thanks to new technology that makes it easier for companies to put fragile historical documents online.

Ancestry.com, a subscription service owned by MyFamily.com, has recently put a fully indexed version of the 1910 U.S. Census on the Web, culminating its six-year-long project of digitizing and indexing all publicly available U.S. Census records from 1790 to 1930.

This effort means users can now search all publicly available U.S. censuses for ancestors’ names, ages, birthplaces and places of residence. They can also discover other facts such as addresses, home values and occupations by viewing a digital image of the handwritten original document.

In recent months, FamilySearch.org, a free site sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has been expanding its collection of birth, marriage, death, census and other records. It has also begun a massive project to digitize billions of records previously available only on microfilm, particularly civil, church and local records. It plans to make those available online beginning early next year.

At the same time, a new genealogy search tool from MyHeritage, a free service based in Israel, is allowing consumers to simply search across hundreds of genealogy databases at once. These databases include everything from lists of passengers kept by ships transporting immigrants to war casualty records and photo archives.

While family-history aficionados have for years been able to hunt down batches of records (often with the help of subscription-only services available through libraries and schools), new services put such sources right at consumers’ fingertips and in one place. FamilySearch.org, a free site, says its recent efforts to digitize billions of reels of microfilm will allow consumers to access sources from their desk. Previously, the site could only tell users how to find the relevant microfilm.

While traditional online genealogy queries often only pulled up a name, birth and death date and location, the new results are much richer and include more arcane trivia from church registries, cemetery records and even agrarian censuses (revealing how many pigs and chickens one’s relatives may have owned).

New technologies and plummeting digital storage costs are enabling companies to put more
sources directly online. Ancestry.com’s massive batch of census records is housed in a 3,400-square-foot data center in Utah that contains 3,400 servers. Such an investment was possible only because such digital storage costs have been continuing to fall, says Tim Sullivan, Ancestry.com’s chief executive.

Cameras that take higher-resolution pictures and that can automatically correct for blemishes like watermarks mean that FamilySearch.org can do “in minutes what used to take hours and days,” says the organization’s chief marketing officer Steve Anderson. New technologies that can recognize the type of document being scanned and highlight various fields for indexing are helping, too.

The preservation efforts are part of a massive global effort to digitize a variety of content for safekeeping and easy searching, such as Google’s effort to scan libraries of books. Online genealogy companies say that last year’s devastating hurricane season, which destroyed several archives in the South, has also increased demand for partnership programs in which they digitize local archives in exchange for being able to offer the sources to the public through their sites.

Companies are also branching out to include more international records. Ancestry.com recently launched Ancestry.co.uk, which will help its U.S. market by allowing Americans to trace those with English roots further back, the company says.

Ancestry.com has been adding international sources to its U.S. site as well. In April, the company completed an online version of the 1841 United Kingdom Census and has plans to add German, Italian and Australia databases soon.

MyHeritage Research, which is available through MyHeritage.com, allows consumers to type in an ancestor’s name and then search simultaneously across more than 400 databases from around the world such as Ireland’s Gravestone Index and soldier records from the U.S. Civil War.

© 2006 Naples Daily News and NDN Productions. Published in Naples, Florida, USA by the E.W. Scripps Co.

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