FamilySearch Wiki:Introduction

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Most of this information was presented at the BYU Computerized Genealogy conference in March 2008, and appears in the syllabus. A compressed version of the Powerpoint file is also available for download. Feel free to use it to tell your organization about FamilySearch Wiki!

People seeking research advice have to search many sources to find it. FamilySearch Wiki is a Website where the community can write and update research advice for any locality. Here's an overview of our vision and an invitation to join us.

Our mission and funding

The mission of the Family History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) is to provide genealogical records and services to customers worldwide. Our services are free, as are most of our products -- including data sets online. We have occasionally offered products at cost, such as genealogical records on CD-ROM. We are funded by contributions from members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We do not receive funds from any profit-making companies with whom we collaborate on projects.

Our customers -- and why serving every country is important

We serve millions of customers each year. The overwhelming majority of our customers are not LDS. Our customers range from the richest of people to the poorest. They ask us how to find ancestors in all countries -- developed ones and underdeveloped ones.

Some people are curious as to how there could be a demand for genealogical research support regarding a country where people live on a dollar a day. If residents there must focus their time and resources so heavily on mere survival, how could anyone there be doing genealogy? One of the answers lies in emigration.

When survival is tough in a country, people tend to emigrate to countries where life is easier. In countries where life is easier, people tend to have leisure time. Some choose to spend this time learning about their ancestors. Descendants of emigrants often become disconnected from their heritage and want to learn about their families. Thus, FamilySearch receives questions regarding genealogical research in even the poorest of countries -- including those where genealogy is an oral tradition rather than a process of documentation.

Our employees and volunteers

It takes a lot of people to provide genealogical support to millions of patrons worldwide:

  • More than 1,000 employees and volunteers serve in the Family History Department and the Family History Library.
  • More than 55,000 local family history consultants help patrons in 163 countries.
  • Thousands of volunteers help patrons at 4,500 family history centers in (#) countries.

Challenges in providing research advice

In 2007, we decided that in order to serve our customers successfully, we needed to solve some challenges:

  • Provide content for more places. (In 2007 our publications covered less than half the world’s countries.)
  • Provide content in more languages. (For years we had a research guide for Mexico that was published only in English.)
  • Revise content more often to maintain its usefulness. (In 2007, most of our publications were at least five years old.)
  • Increase the number of missionaries, volunteers, and family history consultants to accomodate patron demand.
  • Identify records worldwide. (The world is a big place. There is always room to improve the information we gather regarding local collections.)
  • Provide local lessons. (FamilySearch generally provides only general lessons that work everywhere. But the best genealogy advice is specific and local!)
  • Make content easy to find. (The Research Guidance tool on is hard to navigate. Our tools need to have search engines!)

Our strengths as an organization

Taken together, family history consultants and the LDS Family History Department have some major strengths:

  • Knowledge of many genealogical topics
  • Huge volunteer base (55,000+ family history consultants worldwide)
  • Many locations (4,500+ family history centers worldwide)
  • Excellent international records collection

The answer? Community!

Our list of challenges illustrates a need to increase the scale, publishing speed, and scope of research advice. Our strengths in knowledge, volunteer base, number of locations, and records collection indicate we can overcome these challenges if we work together as a community.

If community is the answer, who is doing community work well and what can we learn from them? Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia built by volunteers, is arguably the most notable community site. Like other wikis, Wikipedia allows regular people to write about their favorite topics using a simple editing tool. In other words, it allows people who aren’t techno-geeks to write content online. Most Internet users are familiar with Wikipedia, but many who have used it are not aware of a few important facts:

  • Wikipedia is the 9th most popular Website.
  • It's content is written by the community.
  • It receives 3,000 new entries per day.
  • Most errors are corrected within 5 minutes.
  • The average article has 11 edits.

Community sites and quality

Many Internet users have heard media stories about a handful of Wikipedia articles in which incorrect information was posted and wasn’t fixed for a long time. These are aberrations. One Nature study showed Wikipedia’s accuracy rivals that of Encyclopedia Britannica. Our managers have tested the Wikipedia community’s ability to correct errors quickly. When they put erroneous information on a Wikipedia page, it lasted only 27 seconds. An IBM study showed the average error in Wikipedia is corrected within five minutes.

In 2007, at the Information Dynamics Laboratory, a part of Hewlett-Packard Labs, they studied the correlation between Cooperation and quality in Wikipedia. Authors Dennis Wilkinson and Bernardo Huberman concluded, after examining all 50 million edits to the 1.5 million English-language Wikipedia articles, "...that article quality is indeed correlated with both number of edits and number of distinct editors, and intensity of cooperative behavior, as compared to other articles of similar visibility and age. This is significant because in other domains, fruitful cooperation has proven to be difficult to sustain as the size of the collaboration increases. Furthermore, in spite of the vagaries of human behavior, we show that Wikipedia articles accrete edits according to a simple stochastic mechanism in which edits beget edits. Topics of high interest or relevance are thus naturally brought to the forefront of quality."  In other words, a highly cooperative Wiki-model can provide information of the highest quality.

But to what extent can a community site really offer accurate content? One way to look at this is to remember how Linux and Firefox were developed. Both were built by volunteer communities. Linux is an operating system used by the world’s largest corporations to serve out their Websites. If the site goes down, these companies lose millions. They choose Linux because it’s so stable. Linux is simply superior to operating systems built by some of the world’s best-known software companies.

Firefox is a Web browser. It, too, was built by a volunteer community. It’s very stable, and its feature set tends to grow much faster than that of commercial browsers. In fact, Microsoft copies Firefox features when they release new versions of its browser, Internet Explorer.

So how does a volunteer community produce a product whose quality rivals or exceeds that of commercial products? The answer lies in the mantra often heard from Linux developers: “Many eyeballs make any bug shallow.” If enough people invest their time in contributing to a product, they tend to catch bugs early and fix them quickly. Community brings quality. A worldwide community, contributing information for which they are experts, can provide a repository of genealogical excellence and unrivaled information for the entire world.

One contributor makes a difference

A common misconception about community sites like Wikipedia is that they are built by huge teams of volunteers. While it’s true that a massive number of people have contributed to Wikipedia, it is interesting to note that 75% of its content edits are made by only the most active 2% of its users.1 So in a community Website, a few good people make a huge impact.

Another surprising fact about community Websites is that only 1-5% of their users contribute. Most people use community sites to find information, not to contribute. If only 2.5% of our 50,000 family history consultants worldwide contribute content to FamilySearch Wiki, we’ll be gaining 1250 contributors! Imagine how fast we will generate research advice for all places and time periods!

Combining a wiki and discussion groups

FamilySearch Wiki is a site where the community works together to post articles, lessons, news, and events that provide research advice. But the world is a big place, and there are a lot of records out there, so the wiki will never have everything there is to know about how to do genealogy research. Therefore, when customers can’t find the information they need on the wiki, they’ll need somewhere they can go to get answers from others who know about the topic in question. If I’m researching Church of the Brethren ancestors from Pennsylvania and the wiki can’t tell me what their migration patterns were, I want to be able to get answers from Church of the Brethren experts. For that reason, we’re also building discussion groups or forums. Many will be focused on places (like Pennsylvania), and others will be focused on ethnic, religious, and racial groups (like Church of the Brethren).

Leveraging our strengths

So how will we leverage our strengths? What will be the result when we provide research advice through our worldwide community? We will:

  • Shorten the publishing cycle from months to minutes
  • Geometrically increase the number of authors
  • Boost communication between customers and experts.

An invitation

We’re eager to build this site to suit your needs, and we’d love to see you contribute your knowledge, as well! Come find research advice on Create an account and contribute your knowledge!


On Wikipedia, the most active 2% of users contribute roughly 75% of the edits.1 One person can make a huge difference, and other users need your knowledge! Adding content is easy – a significant portion of our content is added by senior citizens who have little computer experience. They can do it because it’s simple: Using the site’s editing tool is much like using Microsoft Word or Wordpad. Give it a try!

Probably the easiest way to contribute your knowledge is to add new information to an existing article. Find an article that deals with some type of information you’d use often, and then add to it. For instance, if you know a good Website for tombstone inscriptions in Pennsylvania, you can add the link to an existing article called Pennsylvania Cemetery Records. You can do it in only a couple minutes – it’s that simple!

Why is FamilySearch "competing" with other organizations' similar Websites?

We avoid duplication and welcome collaboration

Some folks who hear about FamilySearch Wiki note that there are other valuable Websites which offer research advice. They ask, "Why are you competing with Site X? It's a good site. Why do you want to duplicate their work and dilute the efforts that are already being contributed to them?" 

Part of the answer is that we don't want to duplicate sites that are offering quality research guidance. Wherever there is a site that offers current, clear, well-organized content that our customers value, our goal is to link to those sites from the wiki and drive customers to them. That said, some sites have great information for one area and obsolete information for another. Other sites have great navigation in one area, and confusing navigation in another. In these cases, we may choose to....

  • partner with the other organization to help them revise their content;
  • link to the other site's quality content but not to their obsolete content;
  • create similar content for the area in question in a language not covered by the original site.

We welcome like-minded organizations to contact us if they'd like to collaborate. Such partnerships will more rapidly produce the information genealogists need.

Our content isn't new -- only the media is

Another way to consider FamilySearch's "new entry" into this market is that FamilySearch isn't new to this domain at all. Our organization has provided research guidance to patrons since 1894 when we were known as the Genealogical Society of Utah. We've always striven to do our best to deliver "one-stop shopping" for genealogical advice. During the 100+ years of our existence, we've constantly worked to improve the media we use to deliver that advice, including a few major media changes in the last 15 years. In the 1980s, we published research advice on paper. In 1998, we switched to CD-ROM. In 1999, we switched to html. In 2008, in order to make the work collaborative and scalable, we switched to the wiki medium.

When you consider the organizations who offer genealogical research advice, then, FamilySearch is a relatively ancient player. And like any other service organization or publisher, we periodically swap out strategies and media to better serve our customers. Even the information we used to seed the wiki isn't new to the field. We published it on paper in 1997, on CD-ROMs in 1998, in html on the Web in 1999, and in Wiki code in 2008. The content we used to populate each medium was basically the same -- we just updated it as we went along.

Subjects outside the wiki’s scope

FamilySearch Wiki is about genealogical research advice. The site’s scope does not include two important domains. First, this is not a site for posting what you know about a specific ancestor. If you want to document facts about an ancestor’s life, please visit and see the section entitled “Preserve and Share Your Family History.”

Another type of content that is not for FamilySearch Wiki is that which focuses on how to use FamilySearch products like Ancestral File, IGI, or Pedigree Resource File. Such information can be found on

LDS folks: serve a mission in your pajamas

Although people of many faiths are contributing to this site, there is a unique opportunity for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Want to serve a part-time or full-time mission? Hate suits, skirts, stockings, or schedules? We need experienced genealogists who can contribute useful information to the wiki. Some of our best contributors serve from home in their spare time. If this sounds like the kind of mission you could really enjoy, send an e-mail to Family History Research Support by clicking here.

You can make a big difference!

Which little facts do you use often in your genealogical research? Could another researcher benefit from your hard-won experience? Join us on and help build a storehouse of information that you and others can use to learn how to find your ancestors!


1. Aaron Swartz, Raw Thought: Who Writes Wikipedia?, accessed 4 Mar 2008.