Spring brings for me a struggle of sorts…a struggle between my two major passions, Gardening and Genealogy. During the cooler days of fall and rainy days of winter, sequestering myself inside the house surrounded by the books, folders, and websites of genealogy is easy. But right around the start of April, I need to be in the garden. This year my ancestors won out over gardening, at least during the first of the season.
This April I found myself visiting both cousins and libraries. All the while checking off items on my ever growing Genealogy “To Do” list. Visiting with my cousins was easy...They would give me a big box of old family photographs and I would send a few days scanning each and every photograph. The libraries offered a similar experience, but in a much more purposeful way.
Having dappled in genealogy since 1993, I had always wanted to visit the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Circumstances and the ever expanding wealth of online resources had kept the Library at bay for decades. But this April, I finally made the pilgrimage of sorts to what should be called the Center of the Genealogical Universe. The Library is an amazing place for the genealogist of any skill set. I would like to share my impressions, what I found, and how I made the most of my limited time in Salt Lake City.
The Library itself is in downtown Salt Lake City, just a mile or so from the state capitol. It is easy to find, immediately adjacent to Temple Square, but beware of the many one-way streets in the area. For the unfamiliar, one wrong turn could require several blocks of travel before you can turn around to get back on track. I found some very limited paid parking ($8 per day) within a block of the library, but I would recommend the very large lot boarded by North Temple, South Temple, N 300 West, and N 200 West streets. At only three dollars a day, and free on Saturday, it’s a bargain. The walk was not bad either, two blocks and only took me about five minutes.
The Library has five floors, three above ground to two below. Each floor has an information desk and what seemed to me to be an army of LDS volunteers and missionaries ready to help you find whatever you are looking for. Throughout the Library, things seem to be in a state of flux because of the digitization effort. I was told every book will be digitized and eventually be made available online. I have no idea what this will mean for the Library. My concern would be that someday the brick and mortar institution of libraries in general could become a thing of the past. And the change was evident at the Salt Lake Library. For example, about half the books of surnames were gone. Gone, not in the Library! And as is my luck, everything concerning my surnames was among the missing. I was assured that anything I wanted was already online “inside the Library”, and soon to be on the Internet also. Large signs told of the digitization project, but I still saw lots of confused faces.
I made the most use of the third floor, which the top floor of the Library. This is where you will find the United States and Canadian books. Other Canadian books are located on the ground floor in the International section. Everything is arraigned geographically, as you might expect, so just check the front of the isles for the state you are interested in. Because the Library uses the Dewey Decimal system, individual counties or parishes are not on the shelves alphabetically. There is a guide at the information desk to locate the call numbers for any given state and county/parish. And herein is my concern about completely doing away with books. Often times I find great information just by checking the shelves for a particular geographic area. It’s a mode of research you can do most efficiently by looking at a shelf of books. For anyone without any type of research plan going in, simply knowing where an ancestor lived would be enough to keep you busy for hours using this approach. I suppose in a digital library, one could search call numbers for a given area, but that would not be has much fun!
On this trip, I approached my research a little differently. Through the work I had already done at home, I already knew the books I wanted to review. Because I can always go online for “online” books, or order films sent to my local Family History Center, I focused solely on books I could only see in the Library. From home, I went online to Family Search and obtained the call numbers for all the books I wanted to review. (By the way, I have also looked for these same books at the Sutro, and they have some of them. But the Family History Library had all of them.) The Family Search Catalog will allow a search by book title and author’s name, book title, call number, etc. The online catalog will also so the location of the book in the Library or at any of the major Family History Centers. Because much of my work tends to involve south and southwest Louisiana, many of the books I wanted were all in the same general area (same floor and call number range). Using the Family Search catalog I learned that most of the books I was interested in were also in the Los Angeles Family History Center. I made a note of this, as I might plan a trip to the Center in Los Angeles which is of course at considerably closer than Salt Lake City.
With a list of the books I wanted in hand, I then incorporated the titles and call numbers into my To Do list. I use an Excel spread sheet for this document. My To Do list is list of every single thing I want to accomplish on future field trips. For instance, if I want to visit a given cemetery I will list the cemetery’s name and address leaving a column for a Zip Code. I can then sort by zip code and line up all the outings geographically. For my trip to Salt Lake City, I put the book’s call numbers in the zip code field. Then I had a top to bottom list of every book I wanted, nicely lined up.
Next came the fun part…photography! While you can copy what you want at the Library, there is a fee. Purchase a library debit card and stand in line for a copy machine. Or, just do like several people were doing, take digital photographs of the pages you need. I have a system for this. I always take a picture of the outside of the book (spine and cover) and then the page showing the publisher and ISBN number(s). Next I photograph the pages that interest me, being sure the page number of each page is also in the picture. Over the course of the two days I had to spend in the Library, I took nearly 500 photographs. The library staff has no problem with researchers taking photographs, just as long as you are not using a flash. The flashing would be a major distraction if everyone were doing it!
I spent very little time doing actual “research” in the Library. I had no need for the computers, or online materials. All I wanted were photographs of certain pages, from select books. And I typically took several pictures from each book. Generally, every page concerning the surnames I am interested in were photographed. In some cases, I was verifying a source reference made by earlier researchers. In these cases, I even knew the page number of the book. I made sure to get that page, or pages, and then anything else concerning the person or family being researched.
And that’s it! Now that I’m at home, I have sported all the pictures I took into folders on my computer by book. Because I took pictures of the book covers, nothing gets mixed up.
I would highly recommend the Family History Library. It was well worth my time and I’m sure worth yours also. If you plan ahead, your visit will be even more successful. As for my garden, I planted everything a little late…early May, so my first harvesting has been a little delayed. But I have lots of research to keep me busy in the meantime.