This post is an updated version of one I wrote back on September 5, 2016 entitled "Thoughts on the future of Family History Centers." Since that time, I have visited Mesa, Arizona and thought a lot more about the subjects I previously raised.
There are almost 5000 FamilySearch.org Family History Centers (FHCs) around the world. Some time ago, I began analyzing the functions of the FHCs and speculating on their future. Not long ago, I spoke at the annual Genealogy Conference held by the Mesa, Arizona FamilySearch Library (FSL). I thought it would be helpful to review what happened there in Mesa, Arizona.
For many years, the Mesa FSL has been providing genealogical support and services to tens of thousands of visitors every year. Over the approximately ten years that I volunteered in the Mesa FLS, I was happily associated with hundreds of wonderful missionaries and volunteers. I further enjoyed my relationship with the hundreds of patrons from all over the world who came for help and to do research. However, because of the need for more space and to update the facility, measures were started to have the building remodeled. A second, much older, building about a block away was also remodeled and was used for classes and webinars. This was the original building that had housed the facility for many, many years going back into the 1930s when the genealogical collection had been started and originally based in the Mesa, Arizona Temple.
In 2014, after several years of negotiations, when they began to remodel the newer existing building, they unfortunately rather quickly found some serious defects in the building and all work stopped. Because of the anticipated construction, thousands of books, thousands of rolls of microfilm, approximately 50+ computers and office supplies, scanners, and other equipment in was moved into storage containers in the parking lot. Efforts were made to determine the fate of the construction and all the equipment. Finally, after almost a year of waiting, the Directors and the missionaries, moved most of the equipment that could be accommodated into the older, much smaller building. Since then, they have been operating out of the old building while the newer larger building sits empty except for some of the storage.
My recent conversations with the Directors and missionaries for the Mesa FSL indicated that they still had no idea of the future of the facility. Over the now two years since the supposed construction was to begin and be completed, they are still operating out of the much smaller facility. Many of the missionaries have finished their missions and moved on to other activities because of the lack of adequate facilities. After talking to a number of people at FamilySearch, I have never learned anything about the future of the Mesa FSL.
Meanwhile, FamilySearch has begun construction or finished remodeling on several other major facilities around the western part of the United States including St. George and Layton, Utah and the remodeling of the main Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. According to what I have heard, there is also a major FamilySearch office building and possible Family History Center being built in Lehi, Utah.
All of this has given me cause to reflect on the overall future of Family History Centers. In my activities here in Provo, Utah and during the past few years, I have had many opportunities have extensive conversations with dozens (very many) Family History Center Directors from all over the United States and into Canada. Many of these directors ask me questions about their facilities and the future of Family History Centers in general.
Please be aware, I have no direct information from FamilySearch or any other source. Anything I say is my opinion alone. But I can certainly speculate as well as anyone from what I have seen. In the last few months, I have personally visited at least eleven family history centers and have talked to many more directors and volunteers from around the country.
There are several things that are happening that will have an obvious impact on Family History Centers in the future. These include the following:
1. At some point in the future, FamilySearch will finish digitizing the vast collection of microfilm held in the Granite Vault in Little Cottonwood Canyon outside of Salt Lake City. The digitized images are being added to the online collections on FamilySearch.org by the millions every week. When and if this process is substantially completed, there will no longer be any need to rent out the microfilm. So one of the major functions of Family History Centers, hosting and processing the rented microfilm will probably come to an end. There will also no longer be any need for the old, analog microfilm viewers located in many Family History Centers except for residual microfilm usage. There are a number of articles online discussing the end of microfilm. For example, on the website Imagexinc.com on April 13, 2016 in an article entitled, "A Glimpse Into the Future of Mcrofim and Microfiche" summarizes their view as follows:
Frankly, the future will continue to put more and more limits on the use of microfiche. Obsolescence looms. How much better to scan the library of microfiche you currently own to digital media and preserve that information indefinitely. If you receive new microfiche occasionally over the next few years, you can always scan them, too. Once digital, your document management system will help you access the microfiche information easier than any old microfiche reader could.Blogger Dick Eastman wrote a post back on May 29, 2014 entitled "The Death of Microfilm." If you have any doubts about the future of microfilm in the context of genealogy, I suggest you read Dick's post.
2. In the United States and in other areas where computer access to the internet is commonly available, the fact that Family History Centers provide access to online resources is rapidly diminishing in its importance. Most of the more important and frequently used resources available in Family History Centers are now readily available online to anyone with an internet connection. The few subscription programs that have been available for free in Family History Centers are no longer as much of a draw as they used to be. However, in the parts of the world where access to computers and the internet is limited, Family History Centers still provide a desirable and valuable service in simply having connected computer available for patrons. So, depending on the local availability of computers and internet connection, some of the existing Family History Centers will either remain as valuable assets to the community or will become marginalized. From my own observations, because of the lack of local support and need for computers, some of these smaller, less fully staffed centers need to be closed.
3. As I noted in my previous post, cited above, FamilySearch.org is continuing to digitize a huge genealogical book collection. Since my September post the number of digitized books in the FamilySearch.org book collection has risen from about 304,000 to over 320,000 or about 1000 a week. Very few of the Family History Centers have substantial collections of books, but now, with so many online, the collection in Mesa, for example, has become to some extent superseded by the online collections. In additions, the FamilySearch.org partner MyHeritage.com has a collection of over 400,000 digitized books and the newly added partner, Geneanet.org, has over 725,000 more. From these numbers alone, the need for Family History Centers to provide books has markedly diminished. If there are still unique and valuable books in the various centers around the world that can be digitized, then steps should be taken to digitize them also.
What is now left to Family History Centers is their support and training functions. Those centers that I have observed that are flourishing are heavily involved in education and support. Their volunteer staff members are involved in the community and help people in their homes, in classes, in conferences and many other ways. But those centers that rely on walk in patrons are becoming rapidly marginalized. In addition, those centers that provide supplemental services services such as scanning, printing and other related activities are thriving.
FamilySearch is experimenting with Family Discovery Centers as a way to engender interest in genealogy. Although it remains to be seen how successful these high-technology centers will be in the future, they will certainly have a short term impact in increasing interest. However, they are not a substitute for the experience and help of trained, competent volunteers and missionaries that can support genealogical research beyond the basics.
Is the successful model epitomized by the Mesa FSL still a viable option? The tragedy of the Mesa center is that it was and is doing exactly what needs to be done: that is training and supporting people in their genealogical research. The loss of the books and the microfilm is not as serious given the technological advances as the loss of an adequate training area with an experienced and capable staff.
At the core of this whole issue is the ability of FamilySearch to transition to training their volunteers and missionaries to become competent support resources where people can go to move past the simple name gathering level of family history. In this regard, over the past two years or so, the Brigham Young University Family History Library has expanded its focus on improving the competence level of the volunteers and missionaries serving there. To a large extent, due to the leadership of the Director and staff, this has been accomplished to a remarkable degree. The same focus on training Family History Center staffs and even on training local Family History Consultants will in effect "save the Family History Centers" and will provide a clear path to increasing involvement in genealogy in the future.
But those centers that passively expect the world to beat a path to their door, will be marginalized and I expect that many of them will be closed down and consolidated into larger centers that are more oriented to outreach, training and education. All we really need to do is look at online family trees to see how much of a need there is for education and training.