Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, November 8, 2015

A View from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah

When I moved to Provo, Utah, I envisioned traveling to the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City, Utah once a week to do research. The reality is that I have spent one to three days a month there. I have been reflecting on the reasons why my perspective has changed and find that most of the change comes from my increased and almost saturation level experience with the huge, Brigham Young University, Harold B. Lee Family History Library (BYU FHL) just a short distance from my home. Additionally, my perspective on genealogical research in general is undergoing a somewhat radical change.

There are three major source components for genealogical research. These include the vast microfilm collections of the Salt Lake Family History Library, the vast number of books containing information vital to genealogical research and the documents and other sources scattered all over the world. A significant, although relatively small part of the total number of documents needed to do adequate research have now been digitized and are available online. Even though they constitute only a reduced percentage of the total number of documents in the world, the online collections are so huge as to defy individual comprehension. At issue here is the availability of records.

As I become more intensely involved in doing primary research into my own families, I find that the online resources are rather quickly depleted even though I have a lot of experience in searching online. In this regard, I have turned to books and microfilm. Recently, I have been doing research in British parish registers. I think my experience in researching a family line in Huntingdonshire, England is a good example of the contrast between working in Provo at the BYU Family History Library and traveling to Salt Lake City to visit and research in the main Family History Library. One immediate and initial reaction to this comparison is that my appreciation for the BYU Library has expanded greatly. It is somewhat unfair to compare the two, but that comparison has become inevitable due to my constant use of the BYU Library.

My experience with the Salt Lake FHL goes back to my earliest efforts in family history in the 1980s. My experience with the BYU FHL essentially began only when I moved here although I had done some research here in Provo over the years. I do not intend to simply list numbers of books, microfilms and other records in making a comparison. My real objective is to comment on the way my research has evolved.

My initial efforts in researching the Huntingdonshire family lines was focused online. Obviously, I can do this research from anywhere I happen to be as long as I have a connection to the Internet. In this regard, I have found that the website, the website, the website and the website all to be extremely valuable. What I am finding however is that my efforts to find specific information online have to be interspersed with general searches in books and microfilm records. Quite frankly, that type of research can be done more efficiently from the BYU Family History Library and at home than it can be done in Salt Lake City. One key factor here in Provo is that I can order in films to the BYU FHL so I am not limited in going to Salt Lake to simply view films. In addition, the equipment to view the films electronically rather than with the old optical viewers is much more readily available in the BYU FHL than the same machines are in Salt Lake. This is mostly a function of the number viewers available and the demand.

What I am finding is that I am searching online, then going back to the books, then to microfilms and then back online and so forth. As I do this, I find more online than I had discovered previously and likewise, I find more valuable books and then I find that I need to look at what is still in microfilm. As I go through this process of moving from one venue to another, I find that the BYU FHL and the other resources in the Harold B. Lee Library become more and more valuable and I keep finding fewer and fewer reasons to travel to the Salt Lake FHL. This has culminated in my observations that the BYU FHL including all of the other resources in the larger library at Brigham Young University rivals the collections in Salt Lake and is, in my opinion, the second largest such collection or library in the world.

Now, there is one major issue that I have not mentioned; that is a comparison of the support staff at the two libraries. First, I have no particular need for support for my online research from either library. Second, finding the books at both libraries is about equal. Third, I do not necessarily need any assistance in understanding the records I need. So the issue of the support staff is negligible from my standpoint. I can look at both libraries as libraries.

Let's suppose I were planning a research trip to the Salt Lake FHL. Before traveling to Salt Lake, I would certainly do extensive online research to identify the precise records that I needed. I would then do research in the online Catalog to make sure that there were records in the Salt Lake FHL I could not find online. At this point, I would have a very specific idea of my research goals in Salt Lake City. Then, in my case, I would look to see if the same items were available through the BYU FHL. This is what I have done and what I have found is that my need to go to Salt Lake has almost vanished. I find that there are very few unique items in Salt Lake.

Why is this the case? One important reason is the constant digitization of the FamilySearch collections of microfilms and books. For example, today, the digital book collection online contains 1,313 books that refer to Huntingdonshire, England out of a total of 243,172 online. In addition, has implemented a new method of showing the digitized resources in the FamilySearch Catalog. This narrows down the need to rely on paper or microfilm copies of the records. Combining this with the vast resources in Provo add up to more than adequate support for my observations.

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