As this Church News article appears, it has been a quarter-century to the day since President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated the $8.2 million Family History Library at 35 N. West Temple in Salt Lake City, directly west of Temple Square, on Oct. 23, 1985.
Then a counselor in the First Presidency, he prayed “that this may be a day of rejoicing” beyond the veil of mortality and denoted the five-level, state-of-the-art facility as a companion structure to the temples of the Church (see Church News, Nov. 3, 1985; p. 6).
As the years have passed it has continued to play that role. But so much has happened since, hardly foreseeable in 1985. With an explosive advancement in computer technology, the advent of the Worldwide Web, and the resulting boon to genealogical research and data acquisition, it has transcended brick-and-mortar, becoming what staff members term a “library without walls.”
Initially called the Genealogical Library, the 142,000-square-foot facility was renamed the Family History Library two years later, corresponding with a name change to the parent organization, the Family History Department.
“The new library was a major step toward fulfilling the department’s goal to improve access to genealogical records and to provide assistance to genealogy patrons,” said Paul Nauta, public affairs manager for the department. “Expanding to 4,600 satellite or branch libraries (family history centers) and creating a dynamic website rich in content were additional measures taken to fulfill that goal in the years following.”
The name FamilySearch has become the brand by which those services are known to the world. Internet users today access new.familysearch.org to collaborate with close family members as well as distant relatives and to get online training in the how-to’s of genealogical research. In the comfort of their homes, they can even view digitized images of original birth, death, marriage and other records, something that was only possible a decade ago by visiting a library and winding through reels of microfilm.
Has this on-line explosion obviated the need for the building President Hinckley dedicated? Hardly. “The Family History Library is a flagship distribution facility of FamilySearch’s services,” Brother Nauta said.
“It’s still a place where you can come and have the research expertise right at your fingertips, face-to-face,” explained Merrill White, manager of patron services for the library. “Yes, we are recording classes and posting them online for people to take, but the library still offers a great experience for people to come and sit in a class with an expert and ask the questions right then and there. It’s still a place where you can get a lot accomplished in a short amount of time, where you can condense your work down and really focus on it while you’re here.”
President Hinckley, on that dedication day, foresaw the coming expansion of family history in the work of redeeming the dead. “If the temples are to be used as they were designed, genealogical research will have to be accelerated more than ever, and this facility has been designed and built for that purpose, not only to accommodate the needs of the present, but … in anticipation of better resources in the way of equipment and methods of finding than we have available to us today.”
In fact, he said, the building itself was expandable: Three stories could be added if and when they were needed.
“That’s actually something we’ve looked at,” Brother White said, adding that building codes have changed over the years, and the structure would have to be upgraded to accommodate it. “So are we going to add floors? Probably not. But because of our long-term vision of digitizing the collection, getting it out to people, we realize that space probably won’t be an issue.”
So what will continue to draw people to the library or its associated family history centers? “Those are things we’re starting to investigate, because people still tend to want one-on-one assistance. We’re looking at what kind of neat tools we can provide and build or perhaps purchase that they couldn’t have in their own home, so that if they come to the library, they can do things they could never afford to do elsewhere, whether it be the use of large-screen monitors, digital maps or subscription sites.”
Already, the library has changed dramatically on the interior, with each floor having been remodeled at least twice over the years, remembers Vona Williams, manager of the British research consultants unit who has been with the department for 37 years. “It doesn’t look anything like it did when we moved in 25 years ago.”
For one thing, computers have gradually displaced row upon row of microfilm readers and film cabinets, Brother White said. “We had the National Genealogical Society Conference here in March, and we had just made additions to get us up over 450 computers. What was really neat to see is we had literally 3,000 people in this building at once; it was amazing to watch. But yet, nobody was waiting for a reader, and nobody was waiting for a computer. We thought, ‘Wow, we actually had a good balance.’ ”
With all the changes, the library has continued to be a destination point, perennially appearing on lists of the top tourist attractions in Salt Lake City and in Utah. Celebrities and the not-so-famous are among its estimated 1,500 visitors a day. Famous patrons and visitors have included pop singer Helen Reddy; actor Tom Skerrit; actress Teri Garr; the First Ladies of Colombia, Peru and Chile; the president of French Polynesia and the ringmaster of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus.
Not all memories have been pleasant. On April 15, 1999, a gunman opened fire in the lobby just inside the library’s main entrance, killing a Church security guard and a female patron and wounding four others. One of the wounded was 80-year-old Nellie Leighton, a missionary whose assignment was to greet visitors at the building’s entrance desk. Shot in the face, she recovered, vowing to return to the library and to be a missionary for the rest of her life. Sister Williams said Sister Leighton, now 91, continues to be a missionary who sits at the entrance desk of the library, though she has been absent recently due to illness.
It is such dedication among the 100 full- and part-time professional staff and approximately 700 trained volunteers that makes the library experience useful and rewarding for patrons. Part of the reward for the staff and missionaries comes when they can be part of the thrill of discovery for patrons.
“There are so many times when a consultant or a missionary helps a patron and the patron finds what they want and it causes them to shed tears,” Sister Williams said. “Over the years, we’ve often felt like we needed to have a gong or bell or something to ring, because people get so excited when they find their ancestors, and then they don’t have anybody to tell, because most of them are strangers here.”
Larry Jensen, manager of the research consultation units in the library, recalled an occasion when, walking out of his office, he heard his name called. A man he didn’t recognize walked across the room and embraced him. “Turns out that 10 years before that I had helped him with a research problem and told him what he needed to do, and he’d found his ancestors.”
Senior research consultant Barbara Baker remembers her association during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City with a man from Perth, Australia, a doctor for the Olympic Committee. She assisted him for about three days, then continued to work with him long distance after he returned home. He eventually visited the areas in England where he had learned, as a result of his research, his ancestors had lived.
Brother Jensen said serendipity is a frequent occurrence at the library. Perhaps a staff member or missionary will overhear a conversation involving a patron searching for a particular ancestor and have just the bit of knowledge, experience or expertise to help. “It just seems that so many of them were in the right place at the right time,” he said.