Sunday, November 2, 2014

Tools of the Trade

Accountants can't survive without an eraser.  Doctors must be proficient with scalpels and sutures.  A musician needs a saxophone or a bass fiddle.  A mechanic depends on wrenches of various sizes.  Everyone has their instruments of trade.  Record Preservation Specialists for FamilySearch require documents and a camera.  The first few weeks in Crawfordsville became a tutorial for using our specialized tools.


Probate Packet--We'll photograph several thousand of these
Our first assignment has been to capture probate records, documents relating to the inventory and disposition of personal assets and debts of a person passing away.  Often valuable family history information is found in these records.  Obviously a date of death may be present.  A listing of family members, their ages and birth places can be found.  And often interesting facts about their occupation and lifestyle appear.

Rescued from the Dungeon
The probate records we are preserving date from 1824 to 1888.  They had been stored for many years in file drawers in the basement of the Montgomery County courthouse, subject to aging, deterioration, and natural and man-made disasters such as floods or fires.  Employees have microfilmed many of the records after 1888 and are currently digitally scanning more recent documents so that the hard copies which take up a lot of room, can be replaced.  The county clerks were eager to have us come and work with the older documents.

During June of this year, a team of 28 community volunteers spent 18 days emptying the contents of the metal file drawers. They contained small, 4 X 9 envelopes called probate packets.  Some packets had only 1 or 2 documents.  Others had over 200.  The volunteers did their best to remove centuries-old creases, crumpled edges, and folded corners.  The diligent efforts of that volunteer team have made our work go so much faster.

The Work Ahead of Us
The volunteers placed the contents of each packet in legal-size, individual file folders and labeled them with the decedent's name.  108 drawers of documents became 25 large boxes for us to work through.


First Day of Assembly--Our Field Supervisor, Br. Titus
We have a corner of a room in the basement of the courthouse where we've set up shop.  With the help of our field supervisor from FamilySearch, we got the equipment assembled in one day.  He stayed with us for a few more days to train us and make sure the equipment was functioning as it should.

Special lights provide consistent illumination.  All other ambient light is minimized. Black plastic sheeting is covering the cracks in the door and cardboard is taped to the windows.

We call him Nick--our Nikon camera
The camera is mounted on an extremely solid, aluminum framework to minimize any movement that might cause distortion or blur.  We are using a sophisticated 37-megapixel Nikon camera that produces images that are still clear even at 10 times the original size of the document.

At first we imagined listening to music or talks on CD's while we were busy at work.  We soon realized it takes a lot of concentration to capture each image, and we also found that neither one of us is good at multitasking.  We cannot carry on a conversation and rotate an image at the same time.

Our capture board is about five feet long.  The documents are squarely centered on the capture board underneath the camera.  We don't touch the camera, but interface with it through 16 extra computer control keys.  These determine the size of the crop we will use for each document, the rotation of the image, and allow us to quickly perform other capturing functions.

All the Tools Working Together
We use software called DCam which was created specifically for FamilySearch imaging teams.  We have a very large hard drive, monitor, keyboard and mouse.  It is a lot of equipment in such a small space.

Tricks of the Trade

We made several trips to the hardware store and craft store that first week of set up.  No project of any value would be complete without scissors!  We used a can of black spray paint to blacken knitting needles to use for pointers.  We painted clamps and vise grips black to hold down those unruly edges that insist on sticking up.  We bought black masking tape for repairs.  Our trainer suggested using rubber thumbs, but they just made us "all thumbs."  A squirt bottle and even an iron have come in handy to soften and remove crinkles.  I might not iron Michael's white shirts, but I have ironed old documents.  And our favorite piece of equipment?  Michael went out on break one day and came back with a hand vacuum from the thrift store at a cost of  $3.  With such fragile documents, paper fragments are constantly falling to the floor.  We can now clean up at the end of the day.

Spiritual Tools

Prayer Is A Powerful Tool
We have been grateful for the tools FamilySearch has provided for us.  We are grateful to have spiritual tools also.  In the October 2014 General Conference, Elder Richard G. Scott said, "Our Father in Heaven has given us tools to help us come unto Christ and exercise faith in His Atonement. . .  When we are consistently praying morning and night, studying the scriptures daily, having weekly family home evening, and attending the temple regularly, we are actively responding to His invitation to 'come unto Him'."  


  1. Gabe thinks all these details are "Awesome!" He wonders if there were a flood if you would just grab the camera or the computer and run out. It led to some good discussion! He wonders how the people in the olden days built all those drawers! We love these great posts!

    1. Hi, Gabe,

      The documents were indexed and filed in the drawers as part of a New Deal ( project, so the drawers are not as old--1930s.

      A flood is not likely, but we do have tornado warnings and drills. The camera could be replaced. I'd probably grab a box of documents, although where we are at IS the tornado shelter :)


We'd like to hear back from you.