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Though the church has been a technology leader in the past, it seemed to quaver before the Internet.But in April, after months of rumor and speculation, it took the plunge, launching a beta test for a Web site called Family Search Internet Genealogy Service.Even now, what they've made available is pretty amazing."As is, the site helps you cut out a lot of the time and energy you'd spend driving around doing research," says Howells.
These companies include relatively low-key outfits like Kindred Konnections, based in Orem, Utah, which has carved out a loyal subscriber base by serving up the 30 million member-submitted names in its Ancestral Archive.
Perhaps the biggest fish is Brøderbund, a Novato, California-based software giant whose Family Tree Maker site capitalizes on the large user base that the company has established through its profitable line of CD-ROMs.
The Mormon Church is a conservative institution whose fascination with genealogy stems from complicated religious beliefs about the importance of identifying and "saving" the departed.
As a result, it has amassed an unparalleled wealth of genealogical data, so the unveiling of the Family Search beta is being treated as a major event by genealogy buffs."It's like having Mecca brought to your home," says Cyndi Howells, author of But the Mormons aren't putting everything online - for now, users can't obtain copies of original documents, crucial for serious genealogical research - so some observers want to see more before doing any backflips."They're starting with what's easy, with low-hanging fruit," says Beau Sharbrough, president of Gentech, an association for genealogical technology specialists.
Amateur and professional genealogists, regardless of faith, are free to burrow into the church's materials, including the Ancestral File, a computerized database that compiles and cross-references family trees submitted by hundreds of thousands of people, and the International Genealogical Index (IGI), which includes a whopping 300 million names.
Until recently none of this data was available online, to the consternation of many genealogists.Behind 700 feet of granite and six monstrous Mosler doors, the Mormon Church has squirreled away the world's largest collection of genealogical material: more than 2 million microfilm reels of parish records, marriage indexes, necrologies, census reports, pilgrim registers, and piles of other documents - some dating back to the Middle Ages.The Granite Mountain Record Vault holds around 2 billion names, a sizable portion of the total number of people who have ambled through recorded history.Still, there's money to be made, and people are jumping in.At this point, hundreds of companies are devoted to online genealogy, offering subscribers tools, advice, links, news, and, most important, scads of data.Another notable player is Inc., also based in Orem, which offers an ever expanding rack of solid, searchable databases, including marriage records for 25 states and an index to 35 million US Census records.Ancestry has 70,000 subscribers; its profile was raised last February by a .3 million capital infusion.The Mormons' Web presence is having an inevitable impact on this delicate mix."The church is weighing in as the 800-pound gorilla in most family-history activities," says Sharbrough."For them to say, ' We have a service and we're going to put it on the Net for free' creates a downward pressure on the price of information being distributed electronically to users."Tellingly, Family Search was an instant success.Less than 48 hours after the beta site went live, on April Fools' Day, hits started numbering in the millions.The church had prepared for the onslaught, but the load balancing wasn't up to snuff, and one server was overwhelmed while several others stood idle.