A couple of days ago, I wrote a post about the Brigham Young University (BYU) Family History Library in Provo, Utah and speculated that it was very likely the second largest genealogy library in the world after the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. I got some comments on the post, mostly in person from people at the library and elsewhere, and that started me thinking. For some years now, the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah has claimed to be the "largest family history library in the world." I certainly do not dispute that. But now that I find myself frequently working at the BYU Family History Library, I began to think about "second place."
What constitutes a large family history or genealogy library? Back in 2009, the FamilyTreeMagazine ran an article entitled, "9 Genealogy Libraries to Visit Before You Die." The libraries listed include the following:
- Allen County Public Library
- Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research
- Family History Library
- Library of Congress
- Mid-Continent Public Library Midwest Genealogy Center
- National Society Daughters of the American Revolution Library
- New England Historic Genealogical Society Research Library
- New York Public Library
- Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County
As I try to point out, genealogically important records can be found in almost any substantial collection of records and sometimes in very small collections. I am reminded of the floor to ceiling records collected by the Hancock County, Illinois Historical Society, as an example, with its catalog of specific data on over 350,000 individuals available no where else and certainly not digitized online.
Now, if my claim that the BYU Family History Library in Provo, Utah is the second largest family history or genealogy library in the United States is accurate, why isn't it mentioned on the list above? Why isn't the BYU Family History Library one of the lifetime bucket-list of libraries to visit before you die? I could say something about having a list of libraries to visit before I die, but that goes into a family tradition we have of taking out-of-town visitors on a tour of our local libraries.
Here is the key to this discussion. If the library has what you are looking for it is a great library, no matter the size, if it doesn't, then what?
My point in many previous posts has been that libraries, per se, are always valuable resources for genealogical research. Even smaller local libraries often have extensive local newspaper collections. I have found important genealogically related information in the Seligman, Arizona Public Library located in a double-wide mobile building and I once spent over two hours listening to the librarian talk about their genealogically important records in the Keokuk, Iowa Public Library.
If we were going to look at libraries from the standpoint of size, then the list above would be dramatically altered. The largest university library in the United States is probably the University of Michigan Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan. But size alone does not make a library an important genealogical resource. It would probably be impossible to determine the size of the staff of each of the libraries dedicated solely to genealogy, but the BYU Family History Library has about 120-130 volunteers and paid staff dedicated to assisting patrons solely with family history research. Unlike the limited hours of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, the BYU Library is open from 7:00 am to Midnight Monday through Friday, 8:00 am to midnight on Saturday and two Sundays a month from 10:00 am to 7:30 pm except on holidays.
Now, the BYU Family History Library is actually part of the larger Harold B. Lee Library on the university campus. According to a list in Wikpedia of the largest libraries in the United States, BYU is number 53. But it is larger than all of the libraries on the list above except for the New York Public Library and the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. Interestingly, the Library of Congress is not included on the Wikipedia list. From the Cincinnati library's catalog, it looks like BYU has about five to six times as many genealogically important microfilms than the Cincinnati Library.
Why is all this important? Well, people seem to travel great distances to visit some of these libraries to do research. I would suggest that the Brigham Young University campus and the Family History Library are only a few miles apart (about an hour by automobile or train) depending on traffic and train connections. It seems a shame to me that people would travel all the way across the United States to Salt Lake City, Utah and fail to spend some time exploring the BYU Library. Whether it is second in size or whatever is not as important as realizing that it and many other libraries hold valuable genealogical materials.
I think that the fact that there are almost 130 volunteers dedicated to helping patrons with their genealogical research at the BYU Library should place it near or at least second on anyone's list. Personally, I have only begun to scratch the surface of the resources at the BYU Library. I have been spending even more time recently to walking the shelves. With what I know now, I would come to Utah to the BYU Family History Library and visit the Family History Library in Salt Lake City only as I found it had items not at BYU.
Now a final few words about university libraries. Although most school libraries are "open to the public" you will find that there are always some restrictions for patrons who are not students or staff of the university. In many cases (probably most cases) these university libraries have a visiting research accommodation. I would always suggest exploring the access to the collections granted to visitors. Some libraries, like the New York Public Library, have special passes for visitors to the Library. Some of the libraries have restrictions on access to certain collections and it is wise to research the library and its policies before arriving to do research.