BETA

Finding yourself in your ancestors

Family History Library rolls out welcome to help beginning researchers succeed

The Family History Library in Salt Lake City is filled with pieces of puzzles, most of which are waiting to be put together.

Frank Bagley, of Cottonwood Heights, right, and Sister Lois Linden, of North Logan, pose for a picture at the LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City Monday, January 30, 2006.  Photo by Jason Olson
Frank Bagley, of Cottonwood Heights, right, and Sister Lois Linden, of North Logan, pose for a picture at the LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City Monday, January 30, 2006. Photo by Jason Olson Photo: Photo by Jason Olson/Deseret Morning News

To begin with, the theme of the library director's open house address Jan. 26 sounded curiously like a riddle: "Find your ancestors, find yourself." In fact, finding those ancestors is a puzzle, as is helping people find their ancestors or themselves.

It is not by accident, however, that the staff at the Family History Library has a passion for solving such conundrums — that's why they are here in the first place. And they have made significant changes recently to help beginners find pieces of their family trees.

When the automatic doors of the library slide open, walking in could be anyone from anywhere in the world, say the staff and volunteers who work here. But when someone enters with a puzzled look, help is ready.

A staff of some 600 people is poised to assist anyone and everyone "have a good experience," they say. The hope is that each starter will learn, come back and use the vast resources of the library to fit together his or her family tree.

Or find pieces of themselves, as would say the library director, Raymond S. Wright, a former BYU professor with more than four decades in family history.

"We are driven to know our forebears — because in a sense only a family historian knows — they are us," he said, speaking to staff, volunteers and patrons on the library's main floor. "Certainly we see in their pictures our own faces, but in their lives we see into their hearts and sense their wills and begin to understand what we must do for those who become our descendants.

Sister Helen Gray helps Brent Messel at the LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City Monday, January 30, 2006.  Photo by Jason Olson
Sister Helen Gray helps Brent Messel at the LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City Monday, January 30, 2006. Photo by Jason Olson Photo: Photo by Jason Olson/Deseret Morning News

"We who are all descendants, regardless of how young we feel, will become ancestors someday," he continued. "And our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren will come here searching for us, to verify who they are and what their lives mean.

"They must learn, as we will, that the one thread that ties each age to the next is family. They must learn that love for those who will yet arrive motivates us to make their world better than the one we entered at our birth."

To explain the changes in the library's plan of operation, he drew heavily from a survey taken in 2005 of the library's patrons. It was this survey's surprising results that led the library to help beginners by increasing by hundreds the number of volunteer helpers.

Only 4 percent of the more than half a million visitors last year described themselves as novices — first-timers with little or no understanding of how to find records of their ancestors among the aisles of books, computer screens or cabinets of microfilm.

Another 14 percent called themselves beginners. Some of these were confused by the vocabulary of genealogists or had difficulty sorting out their task, he said.

Yet "why did more than half a million people decide that here they would find the ancestral facts they lack?" asked Brother Wright. "Of course the unparalleled records and books are a big draw, but just as important is the staff here at the library."

He said the library staff of 600 people is comprised of 125 full- and part-time staffers, among whom are professional researchers with expertise in many areas; 151 full-time missionaries; and 484 part-time or Church service missionaries. "We have added nearly 200 part-time missionaries in just the last six months," he continued, explaining that these are primarily to help novice researchers.

Raymond S. Wright
Raymond S. Wright Photo: Photo by John Hart

Of interest, according to the survey, some 70 percent of all visitors to the library were women. A little more than half were LDS, and a little more than half came from outside the local area. Eighty percent were over 50 years of age, and 82 percent described themselves as intermediate to advanced researchers. These researchers gave the library and staff very high marks. Likely, many of these became experienced through the training they received from the library. In 2005, 848 classes were given to some 14,600 patrons— an average of 70 a month and most for novices. One aspect of their success is that nearly 270,000 name cards for temple work were created, an increase over 2004 of 47 percent.

But it is for the novice — the starters of the family tree puzzle — for whom the business plan of the library has been vastly re-vamped "to ensure that people who come to the library for the first time won't leave empty-handed."

Other recent improvements to the library include:

    • On the main floor, an "Information Commons" has replaced the FamilySearch Reference Unit. This facility will help newcomers to the library with whatever project they are involved in, from writing family histories to learning the current technology.

    • Four book-to-CD scanning stations.

    • An English localities database, used to see what records are available for any of seven English counties. This will be enlarged over time.

    • Access to BYU Family History Archives.

    • Free access to more premium, or pay-per-view, Internet sites.

    • A Soundex converter, which de-codes indexes that are based on sounds rather than letters in order to be more universal.

    • The Oxford Dictionary, which gives previous-century meanings of words.

    • Wireless access to the Internet is being installed.

In addition to the library changes, local ward and stake family history consultants will receive more training to provide skilled assistance to new researchers in wards and stakes. Moreover, support will be provided for increased ward and stake excursions to the library.

But "more important than changes and improvements in this resource center is the role that family present and past plays in your lives and mine," said Brother Wright. Of all our ancestors, he said, "Knowing the happiness and the despair felt, the crosses borne and the mountains climbed . . . clarifies and gives meaning to our lives today."

The staff begins the process of clarifying and giving meaning right in the lobby by greeting people as they come in and trying to determine their needs to ensure a successful experience.

The beginning researcher will thus find meaning, and satisfying success, as each new piece is fit into a family tree.

"If we have done the job correctly, word will spread and more novices and beginners will come to the library," said Brother Wright. "We look forward during the coming year to helping you discover more than you have ever discovered before about who you are."

Elder Lamar Butler, center, poses for a picture with Sharon and Richard Williams of Pingree, Idaho at the LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City Monday, January 30, 2006.  Photo by Jason Olson
Elder Lamar Butler, center, poses for a picture with Sharon and Richard Williams of Pingree, Idaho at the LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City Monday, January 30, 2006. Photo by Jason Olson Photo: Photo by Jason Olson/Deseret Morning News

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