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County marriage licenses linked to national database

Thousands of volunteers across the country and perhaps around the world are helping preserve Jackson County's historic documents.

After signing a contract with the county in January, FamilySearch, a nonprofit organization funded by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, began scanning every county marriage record between 1855 and 1950. It finished at the end of June.

"FamilySearch will get to use our data on their website in return for not charging us for the project," said County Clerk Chris Walker. "There's no money being exchanged."

While FamilySearch processes the images at its Salt Lake City headquarters, the county will receive free digital copies that can be integrated into its own computer system.

This is not the first cooperative agreement between the county and FamilySearch. Deed records from 1853 to 1920 were scanned in 2007 and now are available in digital form at the recorder's office in Medford.

"It's great for an organization," said FamilySearch Public Affairs Manager Paul Nauta, "because we do it for free, and they get a preservation copy of their records. If they have any kind of mishap in the future — fires, floods or anything else — our copy will be available to them."

Walker said Oregon statutes and the Secretary of State's office require her to preserve the original historic documents and, for safety, back them up and store copies in a safe location.

The county began a transition to digital preservation in 1999, although many records are still preserved on microfilm.

"We're trying to get away from this microfilm technology," Walker said. "It's old and expensive. The film breaks and can be very hard to read."

She said microfilm costs the county about $7,000 each year.

Nauta said the Jackson County marriage license project was not unusual for FamilySearch because its volunteers produce about 2 million images a year. During any given week, he said, its teams are scanning documents from as many as 45 countries worldwide.

"With the technology we've created," said Nauta, "the digital copy is significantly better than the original because through digital technology we can improve the legibility on the fly."

Before the images can be posted on the familysearch.org website, they must be indexed, a daunting task that FamilySearch has solved in a unique way.

"We have about 130,000 to 150,000 volunteers, all over the world, who do our indexing online from where they live," Nauta said.

"About five years ago we created a Web-based program where volunteers can just log in and choose a project they want to work on."

A batch of records is downloaded to the volunteer's computer. Once the volunteer finishes the batch, usually in less than an hour, it's returned to FamilySearch. To ensure accuracy, two different volunteers, somewhere in the world, work on the same batch. If there are discrepancies between the two, a more experienced volunteer makes a judgment call.

Walker isn't sure whether the county will be able to use the FamilySearch index with its computer system, although it could possibly overcome indexing difficulties it already has with its marriage records.

"Years ago, they kept track of their marriage records in completely different ways than we do today," Walker said. "The indexing challenge is to integrate those different systems."

Once FamilySearch has everything indexed, Walker said, the county might be able to use it.

"It all depends on how it will work with our computer system," she said. "Frankly, I don't have the staff available to index marriage documents back to the 1800s."

Walker is also excited about a new program created by the Secretary of State's Office. The county will have access to an off-site digital storage facility where records can be securely stored and money saved.

"The state program costs $40 per month per user and we have three users," Walker said. "That comes to $1,440 per year, a savings of about $5,500 over microfilm.

"Even though we will always have to store our historic paper documents," she said, "digital is a way for us to move forward, save money and make it easier to retrieve information."

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at newsmiller@yahoo.com.