By Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal
RIPLEY – For weeks before Curtis and Sherry Petersen arrived in Ripley from Salt Lake City, a group of volunteers worked carefully to prepare county documents for their work.
The retired teachers and others – Odalene Coley, Lamar Criswell, Marsha Criswell, Bobbie McDowell, Helen Nance and Marnell Childers – had to take special care with the fragile print pages as they smoothed creases from hundreds of sheets that had been folded and tucked into envelopes and stored for more than a century.
The Petersens, missionaries with FamilySearch.org who are trained in records preservation, are in Ripley for as long as it takes – probably months – to make digital images of county records that go back to its earliest days.
“We have pre-Civil War records that many counties don’t have because courthouses were burned down during the war,” said Duane Bullard, an avid history buff who arranged the Petersens’ work in Tippah County. “Tippah was fortunate to have a chancery clerk with the foresight to remove the record books from the courthouse with the approach of war and hide them in four different places so they were preserved.”
Bullard learned about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ long-standing genealogy project while watching a program on The History Channel and thought to get those county records included. He felt it would give people researching their Tippah County roots greater access to information.
“We’re getting what I estimate to be about a $250,000 project at no cost to us,” Bullard said. “That’s a gift.”
Using a powerful digital camera, the Petersens are working page-by-page through hundreds of deed books, marriage records, land transactions and other county records, as well as genealogical records that families have given to the county archives.
FamilySearch.org has a significant list of Mississippi materials available on microfilm that can be used at local family history centers, as well as a less extensive catalog of material that can be accessed online.
“There are different levels of access on FamilySearch,” said public affairs manager Paul Nauta. “People with interest in researching their family history soon exhaust living memory and need to start looking at original source records. If the family has lived in the same city for the past 200 years they won’t have very far to look, but that’s pretty rare.”
Instead, people may travel all over the country – even all around the world – looking for records about their ancestors.
“We help people get access to records from all over the country and world, making the records available through local family history centers, usually located in an LDS church,” Nauta said.
More than 100 years’ work
FamilySearch is the largest genealogy organization in the world, according to information on its website. For more than 100 years the Mormon church, working with the Genealogical Society of Utah, has been gathering, preserving and sharing genealogical records worldwide, and now has about 4,500 family history centers in 70 countries.
About 200 teams of field camera operators like the Petersens are working on projects in 45 countries, Nauta said.
“We can’t be everywhere we’d like to be and we have to prioritize,” he said. “In Mississippi we’re definitely interested in county archives, church archives and state archives.”
Where they assign and send teams depends also on the locale’s readiness to have them come, preparing documents to be digitally captured, providing a work space and so forth.
The volunteers largely pay their own expenses and usually have no ancestral connection to the areas where they’re assigned.
“They’re going because they have dedication to the cause,” Nauta said.
However, even when no FamilySearch team visits an area to archive records, local archivists can create a Web page for their organization on the FamilySearch website to give a wider audience access to their information.
“We have probably the largest family genealogy wiki on the Web,” Nauta said.
A wiki is a piece of software that allows users to create and edit Web pages from any Web browser.
On the FamilySearch website a user clicks the “Learn” link at the left top of the page, then follows instructions for the “Research Wiki.”
“The field camera teams are one small part of what our volunteers do,” Nauta said. “Other volunteers help develop free courses online, work on our wiki, prepare searchable indexes online to give people access to these records.”
Anyone is welcome to visit family history centers, whether they are Mormon or not, and centers at an LDS church have a separate entrance.
Access to onsite records is free, as is use of online premium websites like Ancestry.com. However, there is a small fee if a user wants to borrow microfilm from another center or the library in Salt Lake City to use at the local center.
FamilySearch will provide Tippah County with CDs of all the records they digitize, and copies will be available for use through Bullard, the chancery clerk’s office or the county administrator.
“We’ll still have to index them at the end, and we’ll be looking for help again from those retired teachers,” Bullard said.