Tuesday, September 6, 2016
More thoughts on the future of Family History Centers
I had several rather lengthy and insightful comments to my initial post on the future of Family History Centers and as a result, I decided that I needed to follow up with some more thoughts on the subject.
Many historically important institutions are being dramatically affected by the changes in technology: newspapers, libraries, book publishers and many others. The traditional view of Family History Centers is also being altered by the so-called "Information Revolution." As more and more information becomes available online, digitized copies of genealogically relevant documents are being swept up and put online in the flood of general information becoming available. The concept of a Family History Center as a place to go to "do genealogical research" is fading rapidly. When I moved to Provo, Utah, one of the "benefits" I saw was my proximity to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. As a result of my move, I took advantage of the short trip and I have spent days researching in the Library.
However, over just the two short years I have been in Provo, I have discovered a number of things that have eroded my need to travel to Salt Lake. First, of course, was the fact that the Brigham Young University Family History Library and the huge collection of books and other reference material in the Harold B. Lee Library obviated my need to travel. But even more importantly, the ongoing digitization program of books and microfilm conducted by FamilySearch began to provide most of the research that I needed. In addition, I could still order the remaining, not-yet-digitized microfilm and view it in the BYU Family History Library.
Of course, this was a highly personal experience. But at the same time in talking to various directors of Family History Centers around the United States, I began to see a pattern. The continued, increased availability of digitized records was having its impact on the use of the smaller, local Family History Centers. As I observed in my previous post, the function of Family History Centers was changing.
I did learn from a comment that the main floor of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah is now under development into a Family Discovery Center. This movement to Family Discovery Centers which are high-tech introductions to family history, may be extended to smaller, more local facilities thereby replacing the present research emphasis. If this occurs, as it will probably happen in some form or another, then the research component of family history research will move into the homes and the Family History Centers will become more places to be motivated or to be taught. The days of the static Family History Center, open for use during some hours of the week and staffed by volunteers who sit and wait for patrons to come, will pass away.
Both volunteers or missionaries in the Family History Centers as well as the local Family History Consultants will need to become proactive and seek out opportunities to help people on a one-on-one basis rather than expecting people to come and use their resources, resources that are becoming more and more available to everyone in their homes via the Internet.
The changes in the need for a Family History Center in the current model must also be accompanied by a change in the way family history is viewed. Rather than being an activity that you go someplace to do, like my trips to the Family History Library, it is quickly becoming something that can be done anyplace at any time. This movement from away from the locational aspects of genealogy is fueled by the availability of mobile devices. I can now do nearly all of my genealogical research on a tablet computer from anywhere I have a connection to the Internet.
Now, as the commentators noted, there are still places where Family History Centers become the location where people can access the Internet. But as programs and apps develope to adapt to the limitations of smartphones and tablets, the need to sit in front of a dedicated computer will fade away.
What about the educational function of the Family History Center? Many of the existing Centers are merely a small room with a few computers and some other limited resources, principally microfilm readers. They are located in ward and stake buildings across the world. In some cases already, ward members come to church and bring their electronic devices and then congregate in classrooms and help each other with their research. No formal designation of a "Center" is necessary. This is presently a major issue of uniformly good WiFi connections, but that is technological problem that can be solved. So, if you do not need a dedicated room, although it would be nice to have, to do your genealogical research, then what happens to the existing Family History Centers? They slowly or quickly disappear.
It is important at this point in our history to recognize these changes and start making adjustments by capacitating our existing Family History Consultants to take over the need for instruction and assistance. At some point, those needing assistance need to be sent to Family History Consultants rather than Family History Centers.
What about the large libraries and centers? There is still a need for centralized resource centers, such as the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and the BYU Family History Library in Provo. People need to have access to major genealogical collections. Not all of the resources will ever be digitized and not all will have broad access. But the day to day business of genealogical research will certainly become decentralized and more generally available.