Saturday, January 26, 2019
What is the roll of Family History Centers in the future?
I recently visited Mesa, Arizona where I served in the Mesa Family History Center for about 10 years as a Church Service Missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. [Note: the Mesa Family History Center has changed names a few times] Actually, my relationship with the Mesa Center extends back to the 1980s. For a number of years, I provided volunteer technical support for the Mesa Family History Center helping to transfer genealogy file formats between DOS and Apple operating systems. I also ran the Center's website for a while.
As I have written quite a few times, my expanded involvement in genealogy has given me the opportunity to visit Family History Centers across the United States and into Canada. Most recently, I spent a year volunteering in the Annapolis, Maryland Family History Center. I have spent weeks at a time helping patrons at the Salt Lake City, Utah Family History Library and taught classes at the Riverton FamilySearch Library. In short, I have visited and often taught at Family History Centers which could hardly qualify as a center to fully functional centers that include a Family Discovery Center.
OK, so what? Well, the times they are a changing. Many Family History Center volunteers have been using the "Sunday School time" in the three-hour Sunday meeting block that was standard for years to teach family history classes and help individuals with their research. The only comments that have been made about "losing" this valuable family history time are that the classes and help can move to other times during the day on Sunday or to other days of the week. Of course, Family History Centers have been open for patrons during the week and in the evenings, but except for some of the very large centers, attendance during the week is spotty, to say the least.
For example, the Mesa Family History Center was seasonal. During the winter, Mesa had thousands of snowbirds who regularly came to the center and the Center was extremely busy but during the summer activity slowed down considerably. For years, most of the people using the Mesa Family History Center were not members of the Church.
With the change in the Sunday Meeting schedule, individual Family History Centers are left with fashioning their own response. One message that has come through is that family history needs to be taught and supported one-on-one. This is a laudable goal and some Wards and Stakes have taken up the task of supporting members in their homes. However, this emphasis ignores the past extensive help that was being given to patrons who were not members. Staffing and providing help at a Family History Center in a "neutral" environment such as that environment that existed in Mesa, Arizona and still does at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah obviously will not be happening so much on Sundays.
The main draw of the Mesa, Arizona Family History Center over the years was a knowledgeable and helpful staff and a huge collection of books and other resources. Obviously, many of those resources have moved online and in the case of the Mesa Center the staff has been disbanded and put out of business until the "new center" is built and operational. The loss of goodwill among the winter visitors and others who were not members of the Church is irreplaceable. No matter how effective the Family Discovery Center concept actually is, it will not replace the personal help and the resources of the old Family History Center.
Expanding the view of Family History Centers around the world, some centers provide internet and computer access for patrons who otherwise would not have such access especially to equipment besides smartphones such as scanners and printers. But wherever the centers are located, staffing and support from the local Stakes and Wards is a constant background issue. For example, during its last few years, the Mesa Family History Center (FamilySearch Library) received virtually no support from its "sponsoring" Stakes. Currently, some Family History Centers are receiving mixed messages from their sponsoring Stake about their function in the future.
So here are some questions.
Are Family History Centers as presently constituted and supported a viable concept?
This question arises, in part, from the continued rapid digitization of the basic documents needed for research and the continued movement of other genealogically related resources online. In the not too distant past, statements have been made by Church leaders that the future "family history center" is in the home. However, this concept, if carried to its ultimate end, would eliminate the use of these home-based family history centers by those who are not members of the Church.
Does the concept of one-on-one support for family history obviate the need for a family history center?
Once again, carrying this concept to its ultimate conclusion also excludes most of those people who do genealogical research in a family history center who are not members of the Church. Most members of the Church are unaware that the largest number of people with an active genealogical interest in the world is among those who only have a very vague if any idea of the Church's involvement in genealogy. Additionally, those outside the Church who are aware of Church's involvement are mystified by the lack of interest of the general Church population in family history and genealogy given our religious beliefs. Family History Centers have been acting as a bridge between the large and active genealogical community outside the Church and those few members inside the Church who have become competently active in genealogical research. Are we ready to lose that bridge? Family Discovery Centers do not provide a way for those outside the Church to interact with members in serious genealogical research.
Does the Stake sponsored model of a Family History Center adequately provide the resources needed for genealogical research?
Over the years, some local Family History Center, such as the Mesa Center, have amassed important and very valuable genealogical research resources. Some of the volunteers at these local centers have served for many, many years and are irreplaceable resources in their community. Are we now saying to these valuable individuals that they now have no place in our family history program? This was done a few years back in Salt Lake City at the main Family History Library when most of the "professional level" staff were fired and replaced by untrained volunteers with little or no experience. However, the Stake sponsored model does not necessarily create either the atmosphere or support for long term volunteers.
Is there a place for serious genealogical research in the future of Family History Centers?
Many of the comments made about family history and genealogy such as expressing the fact that you don't have to be a genealogist to do family history have denigrated those who have spent years acquiring the skills necessary to do genealogical research. Those of us who feel hurt by these comments are not going to abandon our work simply because we are no longer supported by the "system." But the reality of genealogical research is that it is not easy and it does require some special skills. Do we want to advance serious, accurate, genealogical research or are we willing to accept a superficial view of a Family History Center as a fun place to come and gain an appreciation for your heritage? As I have recently written, there is a vast gap between entertainment and serious research. Do Family History Centers have a place for those who are will to learn how to do Swedish/Russian/etc. research?
Those of us doing serious research will find a way to do our work with or without Family History Centers. However, those who feel the need to make their way through the difficult process of learning how to do that research may or may not benefit from what happens to Family History Centers in the future.