“A Friendly Library,” Ensign, July 1987, 51
Louis S. Marks is a college professor. Susan Goss Johnston is a musician and homemaker. Ernest A. Montemayor is a retired air force colonel. Margo Williams is a graduate student in religious education. Dick Davis is a computer systems engineer. And ten-year-old Robin Adamovich attends elementary school. What do they have in common? They are doing research on their ancestors at one of the Church’s local branch genealogical libraries.
Of course, lots of people are interested in genealogy. What makes these people interesting is that, except for Robin, none are members of the Church. Yet they have discovered what many Latter-day Saints already know: if you can’t go to Salt Lake City to do your genealogical research, the branch genealogical libraries can bring Salt Lake City to you. They have also discovered a secret that many Latter-day Saints have not yet discovered—LDS branch genealogical libraries are a gold mine for the beginner as well as the expert.
Located in various stake centers throughout the world, the branch libraries are, in a sense, extensions of the Church’s Genealogical Library in Salt Lake City, the largest of its kind in the world. The Salt Lake City facility contains more than 1,450,000 rolls of microfilm; 180,000 books; 8,000,000 Family Group Record forms; and many other records. Microfilmed copies of most of these records, acquired since 1938 through an extensive world-wide microfilming program, can be ordered by patrons of the branch genealogical libraries.
Use of these libraries is free, with a minimal processing charge for each microfilm ordered from Salt Lake City. Patrons order the microfilm they want and wait about six weeks for it to arrive. Once the film arrives, they review it. Three weeks later, they either send it back or extend the loan so that other library patrons may use it. Many branch libraries also contain books, maps, and other information on the local history of the area in which they are located. They are smaller than most state or public libraries—and therefore less intimidating to beginners. And one of the real advantages is that volunteer librarians and staff are available to answer questions and share genealogical research skills with patrons who need help.
It surprises some members of the Church to learn that many of the patrons of branch genealogical libraries are not members of the Church. In fact, according to Glade I. Nelson of the Church Genealogical Department, at many of the libraries 80 to 90 percent of the patrons are nonmembers!
With that many nonmembers using the facilities, it is not surprising to learn that many of the volunteer assistant librarians and staff are also not members of the Church.
Ernest A. Montemayor, a retired air force colonel who lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland, is one of these volunteers. Colonel Montemayor became interested in genealogy thirty-five years ago when his father told him about one of his ancestors—the founder of Monterrey, Mexico. “I started trying to trace my lineage to this ancestor,” says Colonel Montemayor. “However, I made the mistake of starting from the ancestor and working forward, instead of the opposite.”
He first visited an LDS branch genealogical library fifteen years ago. He has made use of the libraries ever since, and has served as a volunteer in the Washington, D.C., library for over a year. “I’m just amazed at what information is available,” he says of the library.
Louis Marks agrees. As a professional genealogist and professor of genetics at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, he has come to value the Philadelphia branch genealogical library in nearby Broomall, Pennsylvania, highly. “This is the place for the beginner to come,” he says. In fact, he says that it is his favorite genealogical library in which to work. “It’s a friendly library.”
He often lectures to local groups on genealogy. “One of the things I tell people,” he says, “is that if they go to England or Scotland or Ireland to do research and drive for miles to an obscure parish to ask the vicar about their family records, he will probably say, ‘Oh, we have them on film.’ He will wind the film and they will find that it says, ‘Filmed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City.’ They could have obtained that information right here!”
Doing research in the Philadelphia branch genealogical library saved Eric Umile the expense of such a trip. His great-grandmother died when he was ten and left him the genealogy she had done. He read about the Church’s genealogical libraries in a book about tracing family roots. “When I came here, I knew five generations of my family,” he says. “I was at a point where I couldn’t go any further without taking a trip to Italy.”
Eric ordered microfilms from the Salt Lake library—one time he ordered ninety-two at once—at a cost of $2.00 per film for three weeks or $3.00 per film for six months. That adds up quickly, Eric admits. “But it cost less than going to Italy and doing the research on my own.”
Despite his busy schedule as a college student, Eric works in the library two or three times a week. “It’s one of the most enjoyable things I do,” he says. “I make the time.” He sees genealogy as a way of “linking yourself up with history. I take pride in my heritage,” he says. “And anyone who takes pride in his heritage really ought to know where he came from.”
Most Latter-day Saints who use the branch genealogical libraries are trying to find birth, marriage, and death dates so that they can submit their ancestors’ names for temple ordinances to be performed. Nonmembers, on the other hand, are often just curious. Some are looking for a famous ancestor; others want to join hereditary societies. “They’ll come in and say, ‘I’m related to Daniel Boone. Do you have Daniel Boone’s genealogy in the library?’” says Sherill Armstrong, a member of the Church who serves as patron services librarian in the Columbia, Maryland, branch library. “It’s a hobby to them. But when they find something, they’re just as excited as we are.”
With so much data available in these libraries, where do you begin? The Washington, D.C., branch genealogical library’s procedure for new patrons is typical. New patrons register and receive a short tour: a librarian points out such tools as the International Genealogical Index (IGI), the Genealogy Library Catalog (GLC), the Family Registry, the Accelerated Indexing System (AIS) microfiche data base, and various books on and records of local history. Patrons may see a short videotape or filmstrip about how to use the library and receive a booklet which tells them how to use the library’s resources.
From there, librarians often send patrons to the IGI to see if any of their ancestors’ names have been submitted for temple work. Many people who don’t think they have Latter-day Saints in their families are surprised to find out that they do—and that, often, those members of the Church have gathered genealogical information about their ancestors. “We had one man sit down and cry when he saw all his family names on the IGI, he was so touched,” says Sister Armstrong. “He said that he felt such respect for the man who had submitted the names—that he believed in his religion so much that he did that.”
Many nonmembers ask how they can get their ancestors’ names on the IGI. Dick Davis came to the library in Richmond, Virginia, and liked what he found so much that he read From You to Your Ancestors, the Church’s genealogy manual, and asked if he could submit his ancestors’ names for temple ordinances to be performed so they could be listed on the IGI. Dick’s request was okayed by Church headquarters, and he sent the names in. Since then, he has become a staff member at the library.
Susan Goss Johnston is another nonmember who has used the library extensively. She and her husband purchased a personal computer and wrote their own program for genealogical research. In November 1986, she presented a workshop on computers and genealogy as part of the Columbia, Maryland, branch library’s annual genealogical seminar. She says that genealogy has given her “a sense of roots, a sense of belonging to other people, and a sense of how valuable and interesting every human life is. And it’s fun!” she adds.
Duane Smith, another nonmember, also taught a workshop at the seminar. She became interested in genealogy after her mother died, as a way to help keep her memory alive. At the first Church-sponsored genealogy seminar she attended, Duane was impressed that it started with prayer. “Genealogy is more than doing research; there’s a deeper reason for doing it,” she says.
For members of the Church, that “deeper reason” is having temple ordinances performed for their ancestors. But genealogy also benefits the living. “People who find it hard to talk to each other can use it as a vehicle,” Duane says. Several years ago, she had a misunderstanding with two of her great-aunts and had not spoken to either of them for a number of years. But when she found a family Bible in the attic, she shared it with them; their talk about ancestors and relatives helped her to reestablish both relationships. “We should have been talking all along,” she says.
Duane is an active Methodist. “When I came to the branch library and found that there was no fee and that we were as welcome as the members of the LDS church, I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I send as many people here as I can, assuring them that there’s no pressure to be part of this particular church.”
The Washington, D.C., branch genealogical library also sponsors seminars. In addition, a local genealogical society holds evening classes at the library on subjects such as probate records, church records, cemetery records, land records, migration, Spanish/Southwest U.S. research, Irish genealogy, writing and citing sources, and computers and genealogy.
It is through such classes that many people first find out about the library. Cleta Smith, a nonmember from Silver Spring, Maryland, learned about the library in 1970 through an adult education course in genealogy taught by a Latter-day Saint. She became interested in researching her German ancestry when she was a young girl and has learned to read German script so that she can read microfilmed German church records. “There’s no place in this country, except here at these libraries, where I can use the original German church records,” she says.
Margo Williams’s interest in genealogy began when she was seven years old and her aunt wrote out the family history, biblical style, “complete with begats,” she says, with a smile. She became interested in genealogy, but thought it was something only for professional researchers. After reading some articles about people who were tracing their own family histories, she decided to try doing it herself.
She took a class through a local genealogy club, where she met Joyce Candland, the librarian at the Washington, D.C., branch genealogical library. Joyce was scheduled to teach a course on how to use the library, and Margo signed up for it. “You might say I’ve set up housekeeping here ever since,” says Margo. She did research in the Silver Spring library until 1985, and when the library was moved to its new location near the Washington Temple, she volunteered to serve as a librarian.
Margo has traced her own genealogy to the period just before the American Revolution. “My mother had always said there was no family member alive on her side of the family,” says Margo. “Well, in my work, I found out that not only was everyone not dead, but we have hundreds of living cousins!”
She has worked extensively in the Library of Congress and the National Archives, but she credits the branch genealogical library with much of her success in genealogical work. “Virtually everything I have acquired is due to the work I have done here at the library,” she says.
One thing patrons like about the branch genealogical libraries is the spirit of camaraderie that abounds among the patrons. “Neighborly love—Christian charity—is full-fledged among genealogists,” says Margo. “People just overhear a conversation and stop what they’re doing to help.” If neither a patron nor a librarian knows the answer to a particular question, patrons can contact the Genealogical Library in Salt Lake City.
Some of the best resources the libraries offer are librarians. Their friendly guidance has helped more than one new patron over the intimidation of a first exposure to genealogical research.
For example, Jessie Barbour, head librarian at the Richmond branch genealogical library, has helped to establish “family nights” at the library. She recently worked with a family whose ancestors hailed from North Carolina. “We plotted our course, and we had each child study a different type of record,” says Sister Barbour. That evening, the family learned to use census records, the family registry, and North Carolina marriage records. “And when we got through,” she says, “the three teenagers said, ‘We want to come back next Friday—there’s no school—and do this again.’” Sister Barbour and other members of the Richmond library staff also work one-on-one with Boy Scouts who are working on genealogy merit badges. “We have had whole families get interested just through that,” she says.
Ruth Blanton, head librarian at the Columbia, Maryland, library, has helped ten-year-old Robin Adamovich learn to do genealogical work. Together, Robin and Sister Blanton have taken Robin’s maternal line back six generations. Robin sometimes spends as many as five hours in the library on Saturday. She looks forward to the day when she will be old enough to go to the temple to do proxy baptisms for some of the ancestors she has found.
Pat Dorny served as head librarian for several years at the Philadelphia library. She remembers what it was like to be a beginner. The first time she came to the library seven years ago, she says, “I put the microfilm on the machine, and I didn’t know what to look at.” She has often felt the influence of the Spirit in doing her own genealogy—and in helping others do theirs. In her work at the library, she found that the answers to patrons’ questions sometimes came to her or the other librarians, even when they didn’t know much about the subject. “I really don’t think such experiences are strange,” she says. “I think if we’re engaged in genealogy, the Lord gives us promptings. If librarians are in tune with the Spirit, they can more effectively help the patrons in their research,” she says. “We need to seek the Spirit of Elijah, just as we seek the Spirit of the Holy Ghost.”
Perhaps it is that Spirit that brings patrons—both members and nonmembers—back to the libraries again and again. “You don’t have to be a member of the Church to have a spiritual experience,” says Sherill Armstrong.
Janet Walsman, a member of the Potomac North Ward, serves as a librarian one day a week in the Washington, D.C., branch library. “I’ve loved it!” she says. “If I miss a Wednesday, I feel deprived. And when I find something, I just shout ‘Whoop, whoop-ti-doo!’ I don’t care who’s listening.”
One day Sister Walsman brought a nonmember neighbor with her—and the woman found several of her ancestors’ names on the IGI. “I don’t know why they’re so interested,” she says of the nonmembers she associates with in the library. “It’s not the sealing. Perhaps it’s the Spirit of Elijah manifested in another way.”
Louise Golden has felt that Spirit. She joined the Church because of an interest in genealogy that was kindled by a high school biology genetics project. “I worked on it off and on for several years,” she says, “and then one of my husband’s sisters who was interested in genealogy started teaching me about the Church’s program—and I finally understood why I had had this compulsion to do genealogy.” Sister Golden recently moved to Silver Spring. At her former home in Illinois, she had met several nonmembers who, because of their association with the branch genealogical library, wanted to meet with the missionaries. “You meet such marvelous people working in the library,” Sister Golden says. “I think part of it is that the Spirit of Elijah comes through. You can really feel that Spirit in these people.”