Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Monday, September 28, 2015

How Digitized Books are Changing the Family History Library

The real challenge of libraries today, including the world famous Family History Library, is the rapidly increasing area of digital technology. The increase in mobile computer devices and the ease of acquiring and reading books and other materials online, are eroding the traditional paper base of local and even national libraries.

As an example of the types of devices available, there is the "all new" Kindle Fire which costs $49.95, about the cost of a ticket to many sporting events. The ad for the new Kindle includes the statement, "Enjoy more than 38 million movies, TV shows, songs, books, apps and games." How many local libraries have an inventory of close to that number of anything?

The libraries are reacting by creating their own online, digital libraries. Some, like our local library, even check out tablets and other devices to their patrons. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah is no exception. Over 200,000 of the books in the Library and its partner libraries have already been digitized and the number keeps increasing. The physical effect of this movement from paper to digital copies has affected the number of books on the shelves.

The major challenge to this digital movement is the U.S. Copyright Law. Libraries have been digitizing out-of-copyright books for some time and there are huge collections of these books online. But what about all the books still under copyright? There are movements underway to make all of these books also available. For example, if the Family History Library has a copyrighted book, they can digitize that book, put the physical copy of the book in storage, and then allow one person at a time to "check out" the book and use it online. If the Library has multiple copies of the book, if all of the copies are "retired" to storage, the number of useful digital copies can be increased. Of course if the book are put in storage, the physical copies of the book will no longer be available on the shelves in the library.

The FamilySearch Catalog then becomes the main access point to the books, instead of a visit to the Library on West Temple Street. This is still not entirely true. There are still books left to be digitized and some people will still prefer to look at the paper book. As far as the libraries themselves, the actual use of the books will probably increase now that researchers do not physically have to visit the Library to use a book. Libraries often look to their registered borrowers as patrons since they have no real way to measure whether someone coming into the library actually uses a book or other resource. Usage of a digital book website, such as the books on, can be measured.

The net effect of this shift in usage means that, overall, the libraries will have to provide a broader spectrum of services to continue to attract in-house patrons, but it also means that the physical book collections will appear to diminish. There is always the possibility that people will continue to use paper books, despite the convenience and availability of digital copies. Just as overall book sales in the U.S. have remained constant, but ebook sales have grown to about 22% of the overall book market, libraries will be experiencing the same shift in usage. See, "E-book share of total consumer book sales in the United States from 2009 to 2015."

The trend in the Family History Library has been to expand the computer stations as the books are converted to digital. That trend will likely continue.


  1. I'm surprised the FH Library still has books, especially on the main floor. I haven't been there for several years now, but even then they were emptying the book shelves, (especially the family surname books on the main floor), digitizing books, and putting the hard copies in bins and moving them out to a warehouse in the west desert. Isn't it interesting how the world is changing! No need to buy maps for a road trip with GPS and Google Map App. No need to buy calendars, with apps for that. No need for newspapers when the news is online and more easily searched. No need to write paper journals when we can just create family blogs and videos. No need to make hard copy scrapbooks for our children and grandchildren when we can just post photos, docs, stories on line even on Family Tree, Facebook, and Instagram. No need to write letters when we can email, or better yet, text. And so it goes. One only wonders what's next.

  2. Main floor of the Family History Library will be converted to a large Discovery Center by the late Spring or early Summer of 2017. Three to four times the size of the one in the JSMB with 120 ipads available.

  3. Not everyone is happy about the changes being made to the FH Library, especially out of town patrons. Change is hard.

  4. Paper books are much easier to use than digital, especially when it takes hours to download. One can go directly to indexes, to endnotes, and to lists of abbreviations and codes at the beginning of the volumes. Removals from FHL shelves is not for the purpose of ease of patron use.

    1. It sounds like I need to write a little more on this subject. Thanks for the comment.