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

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Observations on libraries with some implications to genealogy

The Pew Research Center issued a report on a study on Libraries and Learning posted on April 7, 2016. I think the post has some interesting observations on the current trends in library's usage in the United States, but I think the findings also add some very interesting implications for genealogy and genealogists. My attention was drawn to this topic and the Pew study from reading an article in the Brigham Young University school newspaper, The Universe, dated May 17, 2016 entitled "BYU students checking out fewer books as electronic reading options rise."

The BYU Universe article observed,
Twenty-eight percent of Americans didn’t read a single book in the last year. More then 50 percent didn’t take one step into a library, according to Pew Research. 
Compare that to about three hours spent by the average person watching television or movies and nearly five hours spent using cell phones each day. 
Library usage rates continue to drop across America, including at BYU. The checkout rate last year was about 40 percent less than what it was in 2009, according to the library’s website.
The article reports that the BYU Libraries now have almost 3 million books online. As an interesting side note, even though I volunteer in the Library, I am only allowed to check out "paper" books. I do not have access to the online collections unless I access them in the Library. Even if I were to become a "Benefactor" of the University Library and donate at least $1000 a year, I could still not check out ebooks from the BYU Library. Circulation of ebooks is limited to employees and students.

This example points out a very interesting issue with Libraries across the country. They are all jurisdictionally and geographically restrictive. This is natural because the libraries derive their support from the local community and so restrict their collections to the local community, just as is done by BYU. They are also face the monumental restrictions imposed by copyright laws.

This said, they also fail to recognize that they are in competition with online digital book suppliers. Suppose I wanted access to the BYU Library ebook collection and had $1000 a year to donate. Why would I do this just to read ebooks? I might donate for other reasons, but if I wanted to read ebooks, I could get access to many online ebook services for far less than my donation to BYU. For example, Kindle Unlimited gives you access to over a million books for $10.00 a month.

Now to genealogy. Genealogists are subject to the same limitations and market forces as the general population. As I have been writing recently, my own observations are that genealogical researchers use few books. There are exceptions, but they are not common. There are some large online collections of genealogically significant books, but each of the collections has its limitations. It is also unlikely that a researcher would sit down and read a book from cover to cover just on the chance that it had some mention of an ancestor. The most significant advance in this area is the initiative started by to add almost a half a million genealogically relevant books to its advanced search capabilities.

I do not see fee-based systems as a problem. What I do see as a problem is that the fragmentation and restrictions imposed by those who are digitizing the books makes them hard to use with the exception of the initiative started by The courts in the United States have made some small inroads into making this vast amount of information available by ruling in favor of in its book efforts, but I still see the general population turning away from libraries and books simply because they are not as conveniently available as other forms of entertainment and reading. I am aware of many people who have moved entirely to reading books online. Articles, such as the BYU Universe article always quote someone who "loves to use paper books." But this is a cop-out. If so many people love paper books, why aren't they going to libraries to check them out? The answer is one word: convenience.

Some more examples from the genealogy world. has a big collection of digital books. I just checked and they have digitized 279,467 as of today. But their collection is neither visible on the website nor is it easy to use. It is also not integrated into a search for sources in the Historical Record Collections. My experience is that very few users of the website even know of its existence.

Another example. How many digital genealogy books are on the website? After searching in the card catalog, the best number I can come up with is 23,537. If you are looking for an ancestor on have you searched the books? Did you know they existed? Have you added a book source to one of your ancestors? If you look closely at the list of "books" however, you will discover that some (many?) of the "books" are actually indexes to books and the books themselves are not available.

Are the local libraries in your community making it easier for you to gain access to their collections online? Or are they like the Utah Pioneer Digital Library here locally with fewer books than the average high school library for an entire state?

The challenges: fragmentation, lack of availability, copyright and other restrictions, inconvenience, and many others.


  1. Digitized books on can be accessed (if not restricted) on the FS menu under Search. Books is the 4th item down just above Wiki. I can put in a surname of an ancestor, and get multiple books to pop up. Then going to one, I use control + F to see a yellow highlight throughout for that surname. Cool.
    I agree with you about online books. As an avid reader and writer, and an English teacher, now I only read online books from my Kindle, and I refuse to create paper handouts for classes I teach. I just give attendees a business card to our website where the presentation can be found and reviewed and used. I seldom use paper. My journal is digital, and so on.

    1. Yes, I know. My point was that when you do a Historical Record Search you do not see results in the Books.