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Volunteer Mormons save state millions by digitising historic records

Posted by on 29/06/2018

Delbert Dillingham (front), his wife LaRae (second from left) and Marilyn and Jim Freeman. Photo: Jason SouthMormons are known for being conservative, but they’re highly progressive when it comes to online family histories – to the benefit of all.

A group of American Mormon retirees is working voluntarily to scan every Victorian will, probate and inquest document from 1926 to 1937, to be uploaded to the web. And it’s saving us millions of dollars.

Their Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints paid the airfares, but the volunteers are paying for their own food and accommodation in Melbourne for up to two years each.

Each day they use high-tech digital cameras to take 1000 images in a basement room of the Public Record Office Victoria in North Melbourne.

Knowing one’s family tree is a central tenet of their church. Retiree volunteer LaRae Dillingham, from Salt Lake City, says they’re also doing it “because we want to serve, we want to help. We want to make these names available to everybody. We want to feel of use. And it’s a great adventure.”

While the volunteers love Melbourne, some are scared of our spiders, and they puzzle over driving on the “wrong” side of the road and why we don’t pronounce the “r” in car.

LaRae’s husband, Delbert Dillingham, who last visited Melbourne as a doorknocking 19-year-old missionary in 1964, was shocked to see the quiet, low-rise city he left now rife with skyscrapers, with people, trams and cars swarming “like ants on an anthill”.

Marilyn and Jim Freeman, who have 12 children, are from the Utah farming village of Meadow, population 350. This is Mr Freeman’s first overseas trip and he’s a little overwhelmed. But after retirement, they didn’t want to sit around, “and this seemed to be something of worth”.

He loves “talking to people on the train and bus and trams. People are just very, very nice.”

The digital projects co-ordinator at the Public Record Office, Daniel Wilksch, said the Mormons’ work was “wonderful” and had saved Victorians millions of dollars during the past decade.

PROV gets the digitised data for free, and the information is uploaded to the Mormons’ FamilySearch website for genealogists all over the world.

From 2004 to 2011, foreign Mormon and local volunteers digitised 7 million Victorian documents from the 1840s to 1925. The latest project began in February this year.

Mr Wilksch said just 1 per cent of the PROV collection had been digitised, but the Mormons had done most of that, bringing their own digital cameras and software.

The volunteers have been enthralled by some of the personal stories.

In 1916, as the communist revolution loomed, a Mrs Nakis sailed to her native Russia in a desperate bid to bring her brother to Australia. Her husband said she had last written to him from Nagasaki, Japan, during the voyage. She was never heard from again.

Mr Nakis’ frantic letters to police in the village of his wife’s family in Siberia went unanswered.

As Mrs Freeman unfolded Mrs Nakis’ 1927 probate record, she was stunned to discover, among the normally austere legal documents, a glamorous colourised photo postcard of Mrs Nakis sent to her husband from the voyage. It brought the tragedy to life.

“She was so pretty. It’s a love story. And it’s just sad,” Mrs Freeman said.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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