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

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Three Years at the BYU Family History Library: A Retrospective

The Brigham Young University Campus from the Y Mount. The BYU Harold B. Lee Library is the building in the middle with the blue glass structure as an entrance. Most of the Library in underground.
Just over three years ago, my wife and I were getting settled into our new-to-us home in Provo, Utah. We had moved to Utah after spending over 40 years living in Arizona. Even before leaving Mesa, Arizona, my wife and I had volunteered to serve at the Brigham Young University Family History Library, a part of the Harold B. Lee Library (Lee Library) on the campus of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Over the past three years, I have often pondered about the change from Arizona to Utah and from the Mesa FamilySearch Library to the much larger BYU Family History Library. I decided to put down some of my thoughts.

During our time here in Provo, I have become more and more aware of the tremendous resources of the BYU Lee Library. Having spent many years working in university libraries, I have always appreciated the access to books and records these large libraries provided to their patrons. One of my early observations was reinforced after moving to Provo. While working at the University of Utah Library or the Arizona State University Law Library, I was always amazed that so few of the students used the libraries' resources, especially during semester breaks and other vacation times. I had this impression reinforced this week when I entered the BYU Family History Library and found only one student employee in the entire Family History Library.

While on a recent camping trip in Idaho and adjoining states, we stopped to wash clothes at a laundromat in Sandpoint, Idaho. While some washed clothes, the rest of us, including five of my grandchildren went to the local public library to wait. The children immediately began finding books to read and I set up my computer to do some catch-up writing. This was a really impressive library for a smaller town. It was also extremely busy even though there was no apparent special activity going on. We passed a very pleasant waiting time.

Back to the BYU Family History Library. From my perspective, this is easily the second largest specialized Family History Library in the world. But by adding the huge collections of the entire Lee Library, I am privileged to be at a world-class library. Every time I start to do some serious research on another family for myself or others, I am impressed by the Library's resources.

What I do see is the most of the patrons of the library, including the other missionaries serving in the Library, fail to use the Library's resources. Books go untouched. Microfilm and microfiche are only rarely accessed. I almost never see patrons or those serving in the Library using the fabulous collection of reference books prominently displayed in the Library. In fact, it is just exactly like my year's ago experience at the University of Utah Library during the times the students were on breaks between classes. From the full-time students' perspective, the Library is a place to study for their classes and socialize. From the perspective of the non-student patrons, the Library is a place to come and use electronic devices. It is very much like going to a world class restaurant to eat your peanut butter and jelly sandwich from a brown bag.

Why is this the case?

After thinking about this phenomena for about 60 years, I have come to the following conclusions.

  • Very few people know how to use a library's collections.
  • The internet is giving everyone the idea that it is the only source of information available to the world.
  • Even those are comfortable in libraries lack the research skills to fully utilize their contents.
  • Most people do not see study and research as positive leisure activities. 
  • Libraries, in general, do a poor job of promoting their research collections and university libraries are among those who do the least to promote their facilities.
  • Public libraries are facing serious challenges in funding and support.
There are a lot of other reasons also, but that is enough to give some idea of the issues involved. Basically, the BYU Family History Library is part of an academic institution that does not view itself as "serving the general public." Whereas the famous Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah does everything it can to promote family history and included public use. Universities, in general, do not view themselves and their facilities as "public" at all. Visitors to most universities are tolerated at best unless the university sees a way to promote its own financial support. Universities love to have people come to sports events and other entertainment but discourage any other outside involvement. Prospective students and supporters of the university are given a "tour" of the university, but these tours seldom emphasize the academic resources of the library. 

In living close to the university, I have an opportunity to talk with a lot of people who also live close to the university. I am constantly surprised at how few of those living within five minutes or so of BYU even know that there is a Family History Library on campus and many who do, usually comment that it is too inaccessible and they don't know where to park. However, those same people go to football or basketball games at the university and park blocks away from the stadium or Marriott Center. 

For example, there is nothing at all on the BYU campus that would indicate either the existence or location of the Family History Library. If you manage to find the Lee Library, even if go inside, there is nothing indicating that the Family History Library is down the stairs in Level Two except a general map of the Library's sections. To find anything on campus, there are only a few cryptic signs that only help you if you know what you are looking for in the first place. In walking on the campus, even I am asked for directions. 

If the BYU Family History Library is supposed to have, as its primary goal, the support of the students and faculty, then why don't the students and faculty use the facility? The answer to my own question is probably because they do not know what it is or where it is. 

I love working at the BYU Family History Library. I can't think of anything I would rather do in my dotage and old age. I am grateful for the fabulous collections of information in the Library. But I am also sad that it is so underused by its own patrons and others who could benefit from its great resources. 


  1. So how to remedy this situation? Is it open to the public? I dont live in Utah, but I travel there probably once or twice a year. I have only recently become aware of your webinars and that was almost by accident as well.

    1. Yes, it is most certainly open to the public. I am trying to add a little bit of exposure and publicity to the Library. A "solution" would involve a restructuring and reorientation of university libraries in general and that is not likely to happen.

  2. This is very well written and aptly timed. I fear that future budget crunches during the next economic downturn will lead many universities to scale back their library resources (cut hours, delay acquisitions, raise fees, etc.) I have often had the same experience when visiting a major university near my home. There is one floor with several dozens of students online on computers but the floors where the stacks are located are virtually empty. This was on a school weekday. That is great for me but not really a good use of taxpayer funds.