Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Latter-day Perspective on Who Do You Think You Are?

Next door to the "Doctor Who" experience in Kensington this weekend lay an inauspicious gathering of people quietly connecting the world's history.  It was the annual "Who Do You Think You Are" (based on the BBC show) family history conference, the largest of its kind.

I have rarely encountered a kinder, more passionate set of people.  What was even more surprising was that almost every one of the 3,000-4,000 who passed by the "FamilySearch" (my faith's online genealogy archive) booth at which I volunteered seemed to have a positive impression of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  This is not typical, especially in England, where misperceptions (if anything is known) run wild.

After about six hours of volunteering,  I began to understand why.  My faith runs the largest genealogical and family history organization in the world.  I had some sense of its extent, but learning the facts blew me away.  The Church began a variant of FamilySearch 100 years ago, when it started collecting the 350,000 books, serials, and gazettes in its current archives, gradually expanding to 2.4 million rolls of microfilm requiring 65,000 square feet in large mountain-side granite vaults in Utah.  Now that things have gone digital, the website receives hundreds of thousands of unique visits a day and will soon have the most traffic and most online resources of any online genealogy site, scanning nearly 1 million digital images daily, totaling 65,000 books and histories to date.  It's research Wiki has produced 400,000 articles and over 1 billion indexed names.

What I found most impressive was the extent of the family history centers (or centres from the English perspective).  There are 4,600 in 132 countries.  We have 100 in Britain, the largest being in London.  Each are staffed with volunteers who will help anyone doing their family history work for free.  The volunteer numbers are staggering-- 40,000 volunteer staff and consultants, with 400,000 volunteer record indexers.

I got to know a few of these volunteer staffers this weekend.  Some I knew peripherally at church, one was a new acquaintance.  A very smart-looking seventeen-year-old taking his A-levels this year who is also a member of the Jewish genealogical society.  He spends one Saturday a month helping out, and often goes in at other odd times.  He's apparently the resident expert on Jewish genealogical files, and spends all of his holidays of late in Wales to do more family history work.

Why does the Church invest so heavily in family history work, you ask? The answer lies in the doctrine. We believe everyone should get a chance to accept or reject what we have to offer, either before or after death.  Missionary work, such that we perform here, we believe happens in the next life.  When people accept the "restored gospel" in the next life, they still need to be baptized, so the work is done for them vicariously in temples (if they reject it, of course the work done for them is of no affect).

We believe this chance should be offered to anyone who ever lived upon the earth.  That's a whole lot of family history.  We of course do not require that people who use church resources use our software and thus provide their names to us. But it certainly helps.

It is truly amazing that the industry has grown as much as it has since the inception of the Internet.  Apparently, genealogy work is the #2 use for the Internet.  We call the spirit of this work "the spirit of Elijah" as discussed in Malichi 4.  Its fun to see that spirit turning so many children's hearts to their fathers, and vice versa.  A bit infectious, actually.

1 comment:

  1. My parents just returned from London where they served as family history service missionaries in the London Family History Centre for 18-months. The resources there are amazing! And they had an amazing experience. Evidently the missionaries there help staff booths at several events like the one you mentioned. Family history is easy to get caught up in!