Ancestry and the National Archives are digitizing tens of millions of records

New scanning tech will greatly speed up the process.
Archivist scanning documents at National Archives
New equipment at the National Archives digitization center in Maryland is up to 10 times faster than previous tools. US National Archives

The National Archives is partnering with the genealogy company Ancestry to digitize and index tens of millions of US records related to the military, immigration history, and Indigenous communities over the next 5 years.

Announced on Thursday, organizers intend to make an initial 65.5 million documents available online within two years, including World War II and Korean War era military files, as well as immigration and naturalization reports. Much of this information will initially remain on Ancestry’s various websites, although they will eventually make their way onto the publicly accessible National Archives database.

“The National Archives is the nation’s record keeper, and we hold billions of stories in our collection. Our mission is to preserve, protect, and share those stories with all Americans,” US archivist Colleen Shogan said through an official announcement.

Speaking with The Washington Post today, National Archives’ chief innovation officer Pamela Wright explained these ongoing digitization efforts make previously inaccessible information easier to locate for researchers and families. “It’s a geographic barrier for a lot of people,” said Wright, “and making it digital… democratizes access to the records.”

The undertaking will take place across three National Archives facilities in Denver, CO, St. Louis, MO, and San Bruno, CA, where the relevant records are currently held. Archivists will begin this month with naturalization petitions from US immigrants who served in the military between 1918 and 1947. According to Wright, these troves can provide everything from an individual’s rank and unit, to their serial number and place of entry into the military.

[Related: A ‘bionic eye’ scan of an ancient, scorched scroll points to Plato’s long-lost gravesite.]

All that resultant information will also help fill in the sizable, decades-old gaps created in the wake of a major fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis in 1973. Over 15 million military files—including 80 percent of information on soldiers discharged between 1912 and 1960—were lost during the blaze.

The new Ancestry project arrives a month after the National Archives held a formal ribbon cutting ceremony for its recently renovated, 18,000-square-foot digitization center in College Park, Maryland. The massive facility houses new high-speed scanners and overhead camera systems capable of processing multiple record formats as much as 10 times faster than the previous equipment. While the College Park digitization center is not involved with the Ancestry partnership, the National Archives almost certainly couldn’t meet their current larger goal of digitizing and making 500 million pages of records available to the public by September 2026 without it.

CORRECTION May 13, 2024 1:00 PM: This article has been updated and clarified to differentiate between the Ancestry-National Archives project, and the National Archives’ new digitization center in College Park, Maryland.