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

Friday, December 11, 2015

Thoughts on the Largest Libraries in the World

Whenever you talk about large libraries, the Royal Library of Alexandria is always mentioned as wonder of the ancient world. It is said to have had 400,000 manuscripts about equal to a city library today, but it is most famous for having burned down and thereby losing a significant part of our cultural heritage from that era.

I grew up visiting the Phoenix Public Library and spending my summers reading piles of books. Since then, a significant amount of my time over the years has been spent in libraries. I understand that the combined 91 public libraries in the State of Arizona contain more than 8 million books. These combined libraries serve over 6.6 million people. My old haunt, the Phoenix Public Library now has over 1.4 million books. It was not nearly so large when I was young. Of course, the Phoenix Public Library pales in comparison to the largest library in the world, the Library of Congress. Here is the statement about its holdings from its website:
The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, with more than 160 million items on approximately 838 miles of bookshelves. The collections include more than 37 million books and other print materials, 3.5 million recordings, 14 million photographs, 5.5 million maps, 7.1 million pieces of sheet music and 69 million manuscripts.
Google is said to have digitized over 30 million books and may now have the largest collection of books in the world. But only a much smaller number of those books are available to be read or even consulted by the public. The actual numbers are not being made public.

The real issue here with libraries is access. So what if the Library of Congress is the largest library in the world? I live in Utah and can only very occasionally travel to Washington, D.C. Even if I could travel there and spend time in the Library, I would not be permitted to "walk the shelves" and examine things that might be of help or interest to me and even if the stacks were open, I could not physically visit all 838 miles and find what I needed. When I lived in Mesa, Arizona, I only had occasional access to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. Even now, my access takes an entire day's effort.

Some year ago, I read a book by Ray Bradbury entitled, Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967). The title of the book is the combustion point of paper. The book was a dystopian view of a society that had systematically destroyed all of its books. In order to avoid the loss of the books, certain people had been induced to memorize an entire book and act like a living reference despite the severe consequences imposed by the society for preserving a book. The story had a great impact on me because of the idea that a society as a whole would reject books. Little did I know that in my older years I would see a technology that would, to some extent, replace paper books and at the same time make an unimaginable number of books available at any time of day or night and in many cases for free.

But the concept of access has now become more complicated than the simple idea of walking into a library and spending time looking at the shelves. We have always had catalogs and now through online websites such as, we have expansive ways to find books and other items. But what I find among genealogists is a lack of awareness of books as a resource. We spend a lot of effort criticizing the authors of old books for failing to have proper source citations, but we don't even use the books when we now have them available.

The real contrast is between the Library of Congress which has made relatively very few of its books available online and the rapidly growing online libraries both free and by subscription. For example, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) has 2,433,647 books and periodicals as of the date of this post. How many times have you included the DPLA in a search recently?

Since I view everything through my genealogist's glasses, the question is how many of these online books are useful to genealogists. The answer is many hundreds of thousands of them. As I wrote recently, has recently added over 150,000 digitized, fully searchable books to its online Super Search capabilities. They will also be adding more regularly in the future. If you have your family tree on, the program will also suggest Record Matches from the books for the people on your family tree. has accumulated more than 250,000 (actually 249,981 as of the date of this post, but more are being added all the time) fully digitized and searchable books in their Family History Books section. Some of the books have restricted access because they are still under copyright protection and can only be reviewed in the Family History Library computers. Others may also be restricted to the Family History Library and Family History Centers. The total number of genealogically significant books on and on is approximately equal to the total number in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. Do we still need to travel to Salt Lake to look at books? What will the status of the Library be when all the microfilm are digitized and online?

Copyright laws are the great challenge to the expansion of digitized books. Many online libraries exist, but they usually emphasize more popular books rather than those helpful to genealogical research. According to my records, I have written 223 posts which focus on digital books. If you want to review some of these posts, do a Google search for "Genealogy's Star digital books" and you will find a huge selection of posts to choose from.

The bottom line here is that awareness and the motivation to search books is now more of an issue than access. As I have written about many times, there are millions of digital books now available online from thousands of websites. The world has changed, have we?

As a final note, I went to the Provo Public Library this week and checked out two books to read, but I have to finish the one I am reading on my iPad first.


  1. About decade ago, 2005, when I was at the SLC FH Library, I remember that the FamilySearch and Library personnel gave out a survey that patrons were encouraged to fill out. The main question asked is the one you posed above. "What will the status of the Library be when all the microfilm are digitized and online?" Of course the words were slightly different, but the question was the same. What would you come to the library for if you could get everything the library has on your own computer in your jammies at home?
    What began a while after that survey was tallied is a shift in focus in not only the SLC FH Library, but in the Family Search center in the Jos Smith Mem building, the FH Center close to the Seattle Temple, and the soon to be constructed FamilySearch center by Thanksgiving Point in Utah. That is they are going to become more Family Discovery Centers, sort of like the Epcot center, where folks are encouraged to investigate where their surname comes from, where your family came from, what the world was like during your ancestors day, and so on. Teens, children and adults are given a tablet, and can "game" their way through their ancestors information. Let's face it. This is a move to encourage more folks to participate in family history, and that's good. But those who loved the SLC FH Library as a comforting, valuable, and helpful place to seek out ancestors are feeling already disoriented when they go there. So... change is hard.

  2. I worked part time in a library for 5 years when I was a teen. What amazed me most was how few people used it.

    Today, despite the internet, I am amazed how many people are using libraries, and how despite Amazon, all the big box bookstores, e.g. Chapters or Barnes and Noble are teeming with people.