Online database project allows for research of family ancestry

Branden Peterson

Digging through records to discover family roots can be a daunting task for people curious enough to learn about their heritage.

Now, thanks to the Minnesota Population Center at the University and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, people with questions regarding family ancestry can turn to the Internet.

Sorting through more than 50 million entries from the 1880 U.S. and the 1881 Canadian censuses, volunteers spent 18 years and more than two million hours on the project.

From 1982-89, the church compiled the database from microfilm copies of the original 1880 records.

Rumors the church was undertaking the complex project began spreading through the social science world in the late 1990s. Immediately curious about its authenticity, Minnesota Population Center director Steven Ruggles contacted the church in 1999 to see if the University could help with the study.

Initially, the organization was reluctant to allow the center access to the findings. But after the University agreed to touch up details in the database, church officials agreed, and the year-and-a-half collaboration began.

Researchers anticipated thousands of errors in the database because they were transferring information between generations of computers and thousands of volunteers. A tedious and painstaking proofreading investigation was needed to legitimize the database – one the population center desired to undertake.

The population center receives state money, but Ruggles said grants from the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, and the National Science Foundation helped pay for the challenging project.

“We did it on the cheap, but we really didn’t think we’d get a lot of money so we got by on what we had,” Ruggles said.

A team of 30 officials and students, both graduate and undergraduate, organized the data. Although the work threw other projects off schedule, Ron Goeken, data services director at the population center, said the investigation was worth the effort.

“It was really unanticipated, but ultimately, I feel it was worth it. Potentially, we have a really useful, very important database for social science research,” Goeken said.

Goeken said because of copyright restrictions, the population center’s work is strictly academic, and the center cannot accommodate any personal requests for information. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints still holds copyright permission to the census information, and encourages genealogical research through the Internet database at www.familysearch.org.


Branden Peterson welcomes comments at [email protected]