NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - The State of Tennessee Archives has set conservators like Carol Roberts a daunting task. She not only works to restore and digitize state records back to the 1700s, but also helps the state’s 95 counties with their often poorly preserved records. Millions of birth and wedding certificates, wills, deeds, and tax records; all have to be painstakingly restored and then digitized.

"We do cleaning of those historic documents, we preserve them, we stabilize them as best possible," she explained. "We help with any kind of collection we want to preserve into the future."

Tennessee has found an unlikely partner to help with the task 2,500 kilometers away in the state of Utah. The Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, commonly called the Mormon Church, maintains the world’s largest collection of genealogical information at its Family Search Archives.

Family Search supervisor Raymon Naisbitt says proudly, “Anybody can come in from anywhere in the world and we will sit down with them and help them find their ancestors, both digitally as well as what’s on microfilm.”

The archives currently contain about 20 billion records, with a million new records added each day. Some records are collected by Mormon missionaries worldwide, while others come through partnerships with public and private sources.  All are available to the public without charge.

The church won’t say what it spends on the project, but the labor of thousands of Mormon volunteers, who see it as a religious duty, lessens the expense.

“The average church service missionary will serve anywhere from two days a week — 16 hours a week — up to three or four days a week," Naisbitt said, stressing that they volunteer their time and their service. "They give of their time freely in order to help, to assist people, to find their ancestors.”

Religious imperative

The church collects the records for religious reasons, and has used them in ways that have created controversy.  But officials insist the archives speak to a central tenet of Mormon theology. Family is key, according to archive spokesman Paul Nauta.

“We believe that these family relationships won’t end at death, that they are forever in nature, that we will truly see our loved ones again. So to be able to know whose shoulders we’re standing on, and to pass their stories and their history on to those who come afterwards is what makes the family strong and creates those ties.”

The church is pushing hard to move its archive into digital media. Custom-designed apps now make many records available online anywhere, anytime. Naisbitt says digital access is critical to developing interest in the young. “It’s connecting us not only to our past and our present, but with future generations; where my own kids can go on and be able to see photos and stories and memories and documents of me, of my wife, and of my parents and grandparents.”

And if you’re computer challenged, the church maintains more than 4,800 Family History Centers around the world where you can get free assistance from local volunteers. Naisbitt says helping others connect with family, past and present, is its own reward.

“And in many instances we’ve seen people shout for joy, some have shed tears of joy as they’ve connected with their past and seen their ancestors.”

People with ancestral connections to Tennessee will soon have still more reason to celebrate. After nine year’s work in the Memphis area, Mormon volunteers have nearly completed restoring and digitizing records in the state’s most populous county.