FamilySearch’s Family History Library in downtown Salt Lake City will celebrate its 30th anniversary on Oct. 23. When the new facility was completed in 1985, the Church was already considered the foremost authority on family history research. During the past three decades, the library has been hailed by genealogists as the top research and collections library in the world — a designation it still maintains — in part, because it has evolved to keep pace with the changing demographics and demands of family researchers and the communities it serves.
“The Family History Library in Salt Lake City is unique in all the world,” said Diane Loosle, director of the library. She explained the focus of the library has always been to increase access to the world’s genealogical records and help patrons make personal family discoveries.
“To the family historian, this library is like Disneyland,” said Sister Loosle. “There’s no place like it. People dream for years of coming. It is the largest facility of its kind and the largest of FamilySearch’s 4,883 family history centers globally. Many people begin their journey of discovery at one of our facilities.”
The Family History Library has been attracting guests and visitors from all corners of the world for three decades due to its expansive collection of resources and knowledgeable staff. “Most mornings before the library opens, people begin to queue up in front of the doors waiting to get in,” Sister Loosle said.
Plans that seemed almost grandiose when construction of the edifice was announced in 1983 have not only materialized, but have also led the way through the years to accommodate ever-improving research and information gathering options. It has come a long way since its humble beginnings in 1894 as a one-room repository of the Genealogical Society of Utah, just around the corner and up the street in a small building called the Church Historian’s Office at 58 E. South Temple.
The five-story building in downtown Salt Lake City today continues to serve as a repository and physical point of access for FamilySearch’s now billions of records. Instead of growing numbers of microfilm and microfiche, the influx of new records today continues digitally through online indexing, patron submissions, partner exchanges, donations from various government, religious and private entities and local records preservation and access initiatives worldwide — most of which are made available at FamilySearch.org.
The library continues to move with digital innovations, benefiting from the latest technology to preserve and provide access to the world’s genealogical records and increase the success of personal discovery. Progress in gathering, copying, and making records available has been dramatic and fast. Over 300 camera teams are digitally preserving historic records worldwide — over 100 million images per year — that are published directly online.
About 25 percent of the 2.4 million rolls of microfilm stored at the Granite Mountain Vault have been digitally published online. The Family History Library itself has about 1.5 million rolls on site. As physical films are digitized, they are removed from the library. Insofar as possible, the records teams plan on digitally publishing all of the microfilm online for 24/7 access.
In 1985 family history research was a very individual experience requiring each person interested in a specific record to scroll through microfilm or search microfiche. In 1985 over 600 microfilm and fiche readers were housed in the library. Today the Family History Library boasts 550 Internet-enabled patron computers while still providing access to over 200 film and fiche readers. The library also offers free access to film, book and photo scanning equipment to help patrons digitally preserve and share family records.
The library is the hub of a worldwide genealogical library system — including 4,883 satellite branches in more than 100 countries — called FamilySearch Family History Centers or affiliate libraries. The library began serving about 2,000 patrons a day or 700,000 a year in 1985, and today, with FamilySearch.org and its satellite branches, it serves over 45 million guests per year.
“We know that many people will never have the opportunity to visit the Family History Library in person,” said Sister Loosle. “So FamilySearch has been expanding its reach. We want everyone who desires to discover their ancestors to be able to do so, no matter where they live.”
Managing the library requires a village
Visitors to the Family History Library find a collection of resources collected over 120 years and hosts of people with expertise available to help them. The library delivers a cadre of 45 full- and part-time staff, and 550 full- and part-time volunteers or “missionaries” from all over the world.
The main floor of the library is specifically designed to assist inexperienced patrons in getting started. The floor has been outfitted with computers supported by volunteers trained to assist beginners. Volunteers and expert reference staff are also available for more in-depth research on the other floors dedicated to records from certain areas of the world.
On its lower level, for example, is found the largest number of Chinese clan genealogies outside Mainland China. This level is also used for storing family histories, and overflow films, and books available by request. Requests for digitalization of these and other personal books can be requested and is done at another facility in Salt Lake City or at many of the Family History Centers and affiliate libraries.
“The library is not a repository for original documents as is the case with specialized archives; it is not an archive in that sense,” noted David Rencher, chief genealogy officer for FamilySearch. “But it accepts donations of published works of genealogical significance.”
Books and serials are continually added to the library’s shelves — over 600,000 in fact — and the library is heading up an initiative with other public libraries to digitally publish historic books of genealogical relevance online — over 225,000 have been digitally published online to date.
Future of the Family History Library
The library is focused on continuing to expand access to the world’s genealogical record collections to satisfy growing consumer demands. In 1985, the average patrons were mostly retirees or professional researchers.
“Today, the patron faces are changing. It is common to see working professionals, families, and even a growing number of youth amidst the stereotypical retirees and serious researchers,” said Sister Loosle.
Sister Loosle sees a bright future for the library. “The library is still the best place to do family history research and will continue to serve that purpose.”
In addition, the library has created a lab for testing discovery concepts called the Discovery Center, a family-friendly area where families, and particularly young people, can begin the journey of self and family discovery through fun and engaging activities. Over time, similar experiences are planned to be incorporated in the Family History Library to attract new patrons who want to discover their family history.
The library will continue to develop and offer timely, free guest classes broadcasted as webinars. Schedules, necessary connection links, downloadable handouts and recordings to past webinars are accessible online through the FamilySearch Wiki. The library also hosts a community block party in June. This year over 3,200 participants came and enjoyed a free family day including bounce houses, face painting, cultural entertainment, family history-centric activities and classes. The 2016 party is tentatively scheduled for Saturday, June 11.