Joe Everett is a genealogy librarian at FamilySearch, responsible for patron services in international branches of the Family History Library. Joe was previously the head of International Reference at the Family History Library and a technical services librarian, cataloging Slavic and Germanic records. He also spent several years as content manager at Joe earned a B.A. in Russian Language and Family History/Genealogy (Germanic emphasis) from Brigham Young University and a Master of Library Science from Emporia State University (Kansas). He has been active in library and genealogical associations and has lectured and published articles Central & East European research.

21 June 2011

Why genealogy libraries are needed

Years ago, when I used to work for FamilySearch at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, there was a lot of discussion about the relevance of the library as a physical space as we moved into the 21st century age of digital media.  With all of the records digitized, would we still need to have a library building?  If everyone could access the records online in their pajamas, what need would there be for a library reference desk?

My initial response to this was to say that we could never digitize everything, due to the sheer cost of it, and to copyright and other restrictions, so we would always need a place for people to access the remaining paper and microfilm materials. I also pointed out the digital divide that would persist, leaving some have-nots without access to online media.  (There are still people in the U.S.A. without phones, after all, let along computers.)  There are also those who would not be able to afford some of the online records exclusively available by subscription, but which the library could subscribe to as an institution and provide for free.

But there is something even more fundamental about library services that I believe will persist even if everything does become available online and everyone is able to afford access to it: it is the synergy of ideas that comes from the human interaction between people searching for information and those who are there to help.

Perhaps the greatest asset of FamilySearch is not its vast holdings of millions of microfilm reels and hundreds of thousands of books, but the collective knowledge that the people in that organization have developed about records: how to find them, how to evaluate them, and how to use them.  This knowledge has developed primarily through those interactions within the library, which serves as a sort of laboratory of learning for the employees as much as the patrons.

This point was brought home to me again recently, as I listened to one of the Genealogy Gems podcasts.  Lisa Cooke, the show host, was speaking with Jason Harrison, one of the U.S. reference consultants at the FHL, about techniques for searching the U.S. census records. Lisa said, "I imagine with all of the patrons you speak to on a daily basis and all the problems you see, you really home in on where the problems lie.  Do you find there are consistent challenges that people run up against when they are dealing with these records?"

Jason's response illustrates the point: "It's the patron experience that really helped me hone in on these techniques that help to find people in the census, just based on their challenges.  It's kind of a fun field to be in and a job to have, where you are having that interaction, and you're trying to help people get past the wall that is there.  So determining a new way to approach the situation makes it fun and passing that on is a great thing to be able to do--to pass that knowledge on to others so that they can take advantage of it." (1)

No matter how much information is available to everyone online, there will always be people in need of help to sort through it all, find what is relevant, evaluate it, and apply it.  And there will always be a need for experts to provide this sort of help.  Libraries benefit both the learner (the patron) and the teacher (the librarian) by providing countless opportunities to confront information problems, and to learn from them, and then to share that knowledge.

I view the Family History Library as sort of the golden goose of FamilySearch.  Remove the library and you lose the source of the organization's true wealth: the wealth of genealogical knowledge that exists there. It is the knowledge that helped them to build such a valuable collection in the first place, and to find innovative ways to facilitate access to it, as well as to use it.

The good news is that the Family History Library is still here, a decade later, and it appears it is here to stay.  Whether or not you ever have the opportunity to travel to Salt Lake City, if you are searching your family history, you will benefit directly or indirectly from the collective genealogical knowledge that has been developed as a result of the existence of the world's greatest genealogical library.

(1) Lisa Louise Cooke and Jason Harrison, "Episode 108 Census Tips and Tricks," interview by Lisa Louise Cooke, host, The Genealogy Gems Podcast, 8 April 2011, Adobe Flash, Genealogy Gems ( accessed 21 Jun 2011), minutes 40-41.