Church News - The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Digitizing hastens at microfilm vault

Computerizing Church's 2.4 million rolls is now feasible
Published: Saturday, March 11, 2006

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LITTLE COTTONWOOD CANYON, Utah — Behind the massive 14-ton iron vault door, a tunnel penetrates the solid granite mountain as far as the eye can follow its daffodil-yellow corrugated pipe ceiling.

Photo by John L. Hart
Scanning technician Brady Gardner loads microfilm to be converted to digital images at Granite Mountain Records Vault.

Immediately within, the sounds of bustle cease, replaced by echoing footsteps. A rush of cool and slightly perceived dry air signals an archival repository, a paper and film preserve. This is the Granite Mountain Records Vault, home to 2.4 million rolls of microfilm now in an epic process of being digitized and eventually to be made available on FamilySearch.org, the Church's family history Web site. New, faster technology announced here March 3 will cut decades off the expected completion date, which remains unannounced.

As the tunnel proceeds, light green doors indicate the intersection of cross tunnels, 190-foot long corridors where are stacked cabinets of microfilm 24 drawers high. Each tunnel holds hundreds of thousands of rolls of film. Reminiscent in the microfilm are an entire population — men, women and children of all ages, of all nationalities, from all parts of the earth. The quietude of records of the dead, in their granite crypt as it were, seem to be here almost as much in reverence as for preservation.

Beyond the archives, the tunnel ends at a water reservoir, potable from nearly 675 feet of natural filtering. Here, where remnants of 10-foot blasting holes are visible, the reservoir is a supplier for the vault and its processing operations. This vault was blasted into the mountain from 1960-1966 as a final safe haven for the Church's growing collection of records.

Standing in a canyon above the Salt Lake Valley, above the road and beneath a shaggy, watchful mountain goat, the vault is a graphic evidence of the value with which the Church holds its collection. Simply put, the microfilm is more than priceless: it is irreplaceable.

Yet its value lies not just in its possession, but in its use by the average members in their religion. In the yellow tunnel, a young man wheels a tray of a dozen or so rolls out through the vault door, out to the processing operations where the rolls will be copied and shipped for research at one of 4,500-plus family history centers around the world.

Photo by John L. Hart
Engineer Heath Nielson, at bank of 67 computers, wrote much of the scanning software.

Giving increased access to the film — and the rich genealogical records found on them — is a purpose of the vault. For the past few years microfilm scanners here have meticulously imaged the film to transfer its emulsion image to a digital image. The first processes were so slow that the rate of digitizing microfilm didn't even keep pace with the inflow of new films, explained Brent Thompson, director of records preservation in the Family and Church History Department. A computer helped, but these patient technicians tediously scanned and then inspected each roll. It was an inspection process that required full attention to each inch-sized frame on a standard roll of film, which, if unwound, would extend 130 feet. And there are no typical rolls. Some are light, some are dark, some have images high on the film, some low. Some are blurry. And some are perfect. Camera operators ever since 1938 have done their work a little differently. Ultimately, the collection is a result of their labors. The technicians try to capture every image.

Digitizing "is our hope, our dream and an answered prayer," said Brother Thompson.

About two years ago, a new approach to scanning began with a team under the direction of Derek B. Dobson, product manager. A pre-study on what would most benefit expert and novice researchers alike helped the team crystallize its objectives. From the study, one thing loomed largest: easy access.

"We would like to have people be successful (in their research) in short bursts of time," he said.

He emphasized that in scanning the microfilm, there is no latitude for missed images, those too dark or light, blurry or clipped. And the results had to come much faster.

The result was FamilySearch Scanning 1.0, a state-of-the-art computer system, called a breakthrough, "cutting edge in the industry," said Brother Dobson.

The system was displayed in the processing operations area in front of the vault. In the demonstration, a microfilm master pulled from the vault is carefully loaded on a scanner by Brady Gardner, a technician wearing protective gloves. The scanner then begins to capture a stream of images called a ribbon. This ribbon may result in a file up to 100 gigabytes in size. Next the computer identifies each individual image, framing it just larger than the document's actual size. It also manipulates the image, attempting to produce a high quality readable document. Brother Gardner then assesses whether the software made any mistakes and, if necessary, makes corrections. Once he is satisfied, the software cuts the ribbon into individual images, approximately 1 megabyte each. Each roll of microfilm yields from 1,000 to 2,500 images. The entire process takes about 20 minutes to complete.

Photo by John L. Hart
A gridwork of tunnels cuts into solid granite on out-of-the-way canyon wall is secure home to 2.5 million rolls of irreplaceable microfilm and paper records.

"The computer uses complicated algorithms to analyze the ribbon; in a matter of seconds it can go through the entire ribbon," said Brother Dobson. A master copy and a client copy are made.

The new technology has tripled the rate of scanning and shifted much of the effort from human to computer. This rate of speed has implications for processing the entire collection as computers are added to the project. Adding computers, however, adds complications, said Heath Nielson, a BYU graduate student and the engineer for most of the software. Standing at a bank of 67 computers cooled beneath large air pipes, he explained that the computers write at a rate of 56 megabytes a second and continue from eight to 20 minutes. The computers have to write, or record, faster than the scanners read or the system will come to a halt, he explained.

"In January, we scanned about 3,500 films, and we cut about 2.2 million images to about 2.5 terabytes of data," he said. Another 3 terabytes of backup copies was also generated. This is with just four scanners.

(A terabyte is a trillion bytes; the text of the Library of Congress would comprise 20 terabytes, according to Wikipedia.)

Brother Nielson explained that the results are stored on DVDs in a little corner of the vault. Each DVD holds the compressed images of about three films. If the images were not compressed, the digital images would take more storage space than the microfilm, said Wayne Crosby, manager of Granite Mountain Records Vault. About 4 percent of the films have now been digitized, he estimated.

The next phase is indexing of the digitized records, much of this with the help of Church service missionaries, but that is another subject for another day.

Regardless of how fast the digitization occurs, the vault will remain a primary repository of records, said Brother Thompson.

Microfilm, which is being migrated from acetate-based film to polyester to add to its longevity, is more permanent than digital records. Not only does the format for digital recording change, but its stability is unknown.

Through all the development, the team was blessed to have the resources it needed to overcome problems, said Brother Thompson.

He emphasized that all of the effort is being made so the average members, many of whom have not started their family research, will begin and be successful with improved online access to the vault's vast family history collection.

"If I didn't have faith that the average member will take up research, I don't think I would want to be in this job, or involved in this project," he said. "I believe they will do it."

Deseret Morning News archives
On Jan. 19, 1963, Church leaders inspect tunnel later completed in 1964 to house microfilm. Taking of photos in vault area is no longer allowed.
Photo by John L. Hart
Technician Angie Weight monitors digitizing process at three-screen station where a newly developed system using high-end computers captures, prepares, presents for audit and finally cuts records.

Photo by John L. Hart
Derek B. Dobson addresses team at luncheon. About 30 people helped develop product.

E-mail: jhart@desnews.com