Prior to the internet, researching immigrant ancestors was a difficult task. Genealogists had to travel to distant libraries and records offices. They’d send letters to international church archives and wait months for a response.
Even with these massive databases of online information, there are many items that can’t be accessed from home. Some records may be viewed at a local Family History Center. Other items are housed onsite at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.
To learn more about locating genealogical documents, check out my other post, Using The FamilySearch Catalog.
Your Ukrainians may be in Utah.
If your ancestors were born outside the United States, their vital records are probably in Salt Lake City. In the 1930s, The Genealogical Society of Utah began microfilming genealogical records across the world. The Society, now known as FamilySearch, was formed by the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Also referred to as the LDS, many know them simply as Mormons.
The Granite Mountain Vault, just outside of Salt Lake City, holds billions of genealogical records. As the name suggests, it’s a huge vault built into the side of a solid rock mountain.
This place could survive a nuclear explosion.
The LDS church takes genealogy very seriously. I’m not a Mormon, so I can’t offer any inside information on this massive structure, but the official FamilySearch Youtube channel has a few videos.
A local Family History Center is typically a small room inside an LDS church. These centers are open to the public for a few hours every week.
Digitize ALL the records!
In late 2017, an effort to fully digitize all LDS records halted the microfilm loan program. Digitization is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2020. During this transition, millions of genealogical records are currently unavailable outside the library in Salt Lake City. However, some items may be located in their original source locations/countries.
I love Pierogi.
If I need to view some 100-year-old Polish marriage records, I could fly to Poland and attempt to communicate with the locals. I might make a little small talk and try to say something cute like this:
…but I’d probably end up sounding like this guy.
…or I could visit the Family History Library in Utah (where everyone speaks English).
A round-trip ticket from Philadelphia to Salt Lake City can cost as little as $250. This can actually be cheaper than hiring a local researcher for a full day.
Do I have to go to Utah?
Nobody has to go to Utah. But if you’ve hit a brick wall in your research and want some answers before 2021, you may want to consider visiting. Although 62% of Utah’s population belongs to the LDS Church, but you absolutely don’t need to be a member to use the library.
The 1st floor is great for kids and newbies.
When you arrive, a volunteer will greet you at the entrance. Another volunteer will ask if you need help starting your research. Unless you walk fast and look busy, someone will probably direct you to one of these cool interactive genealogy tools.
I left my kids at home with my husband for the week. If they had come along, they would have enjoyed some of these family-friendly kiosks.
If I had just wandered into the library by accident, and only knew the name of my grandparents, I probably would have had a 4-generation family tree completed in a few hours.
But no, I was on a mission. I had to find all the microfilm reels on my list and save a few hundred images to my USB drive. That meant I was going to be spending many hours in the windowless basement of this beautiful building.
On the bright side, at least I didn’t have to research any Australians.
Down in International Collections, level B1, I found the microfilm cabinets. Here, rows and rows of cabinets hold all the boxes of film.
Fortunately, the drawers are all well-labeled, and the reels are in the proper order.
I later realized the only decent photo I took with the cabinets open happened to be a selfie.
What good are 1.5 million reels of microfilm without some decent film readers? Not to worry, the Family History Library has a few dozen ScanPro 3000s in addition to many standard microfilm viewers.
The cool thing about this device is that it allows the user to instantly save multiple microfilm images to a USB drive. It projects the film onto a computer screen. Then, the resolution, brightness, contrast, and focus can be precisely adjusted. Finally, the user can choose to save an image by itself or as a part of a multi-page pdf.
Bring your own caffeine.
By the middle of my first day at the library, I was completely exhausted. I figured I could grab a Coke in the snack room, but no. Caffeinated beverages are not sold in any LDS facilities.
Don’t be fooled, those are caffeine-free Cokes.
What Salt Lake City lacks in caffeine, it more than makes up for with hard-boiled eggs. They are everywhere. These eggs were the first stop at my hotel’s breakfast buffet line.
There are hard-boiled eggs in the vending machines. There is no Coca-Cola, but there are plenty of eggs.
OK, enough about the food..
I spent many hours staring at images like this.
It doesn’t look like much, but this page contains the marriage record of my great-great grandparents in Poland from 1880. This may seem like a lot of effort just to find some blurry names on a page, but there’s a reason I do it.
As I’ve described before in previous articles, I use genealogical records in conjunction with DNA to help people solve family mysteries or find birth parents. I’ve lost count of how many adoptees have contacted me as a suggested 3rd or 4th cousin.
To figure out how I’m related to these people, I need to figure out which of my 2nd or 3rd great grandparents are also their biological ancestors. This means locating marriage records for people born in the early 1800s.
So many cousins!
The more I can familiarize myself with all the available resources and tools, the better I can assist someone who isn’t related to me.
Speaking of 4th cousins, I had the opportunity to meet one of mine while in SLC. A few years ago, my 3rd cousin once removed, Paula, found me via my website. DNA matches to some of her close family members verified how she and I were related.
Interestingly, Paula had followed the Austrian branch of our family tree back to the early 1700s, while I had been focused on sorting out a different branch. When we started emailing, we were able to combine our work and found numerous connections to other distant cousins.
When I mentioned my trip to Paula, she reminded me that her daughter lives near Salt Lake City. Luckily, Holly was free one evening during my stay and she took me out for dinner and a little shopping.
Some experts say each of us may have over a thousand 4th cousins.1 Have you ever met a 4th cousin?
What exactly is a 4th cousin?
Fourth cousins share a set of great-great-great-grandparents. This can seem like an almost unfathomable connection, but it really isn’t that distant. My great-grandmother and Holly’s great-grandmother were first cousins.
Gizella moved out west and Mari stayed in Pennsylvania.
Holly is the first 4th cousin I’ve met in-person and she’s pretty awesome. Thank you, Paula for arranging our meetup. And thank you, Holly for taking me to the Lego store and the Cheesecake Factory, and for not getting annoyed when I sent my steak back twice.
Happy or Not
I was sure to tap the green happy face on the feedback Kiosk after my final day at the library. I hope to visit Salt Lake City again soon.
Other than the lack of Cola, I can’t think of anything negative to say about the library. It was clean, well-staffed, and had convenient hours. Also, the chairs didn’t make my butt numb, even after sitting for a very long time.
As much as I learned at the Family History Library and as enjoyable as my stay was in Salt Lake City, it’s great to be back home. The sheer volume of documents I obtained would have cost way more than my travel expenses, had I employed a local researcher to copy them for me.
The Family History Library is open Monday to Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. On Sundays, only the main floor is open from 1-5 p.m.