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Mormon Church leads in research

By DONNA MURRAY ALLEN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 28, 2001


First of three parts.

SALT LAKE CITY -- With more than 2-million microfilmed records from 97 countries in its repository, 3,500 Family History Centers scattered about the world, a five-story library in the heart of Salt Lake City and its own Web site, the Mormon Church reigns as the indisputable world leader in genealogical research.

Access to this resource is free. The Mormons open the doors to their research facilities to anyone interested in genealogy regardless of religious affiliation.

The motivation to build the world's largest storehouse of pedigree charts, vital records and family biographies stems from a church doctrine decreeing the family unit to be the base of the church, said Tim Bingaman, a reference consultant at the main library in Salt Lake City.

"We believe that the family exists as a unit in the hereafter, so we are told to go out and find our ancestors and put them in their proper place within the family structure," he said. However, placing an ancestor's name on a pedigree chart is not synonymous with having them baptized into the Mormon Church, Bingaman said, even if the person contributing the name is a church member. No one "automatically" becomes a Mormon. Individuals whose names appear on pedigree charts are not counted on church rolls, and charts donated by non-members are used for reference only.

The "roots" effort began in November 1894 when a group of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints founded the Genealogical Society of Utah and opened a library to help people trace their ancestry. In 1938 the Genealogical Society began using a new technology -- microfilm -- to gather and preserve records, an endeavor that continues on an international basis.

Today, the Mormon Family History Center ranks as the largest library of its kind in the world. The 142,000-square-foot building houses 600 microfilm readers, 742,000 microfiches, 300,000 books and 4,500 periodicals. More than 2,300 patrons visit the library daily.

Each month, about 100,000 rolls of microfilm are circulated to its network of Family History Centers operating in 76 countries.

Florida has 59 centers. (There's probably one near you!) All are open to the public, and the volunteer staff at each site assists patrons with their research. (No proselytizing is done.)

The FamilySearch Center, located in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building across the street from the center in Salt Lake City, is an extension of the main library and focuses on compiled family histories. This magnificent structure -- formerly the Hotel Utah -- boasts an atrium with a stained-glass ceiling surrounded by ornate woodwork and a crystal chandelier. Researchers can use 180 computers to tap into computerized genealogical records for hundreds of millions of deceased people. Another section is devoted to bound copies of published family histories.

The church sells a selection of genealogical research products, including compact disks containing census records, vital records indexes and a software program for compiling family charts. The distribution center is in the basement.

Freedman's Bank Records, the 1881 British Census and the Australian Vital Records Index are among the offerings. Prices range from $6 to $25. Call toll-free 1-800-537-5971 for more information.

According to Michael Jay Petersen, supervisor of the Family History Center Support Libraries Division, plans call for the 1880 U.S. Census and the 1890-1920 immigration records from Ellis Island to be released on CDs later this year.

Can't make the trek to Salt Lake City? Many records are online. You can search dozens of databases containing more than 600-million names from around the world at http://www.familysearch.org or use it to locate the Family History Center nearest you. Software for compiling ancestral charts is available at the Web site and free for the taking.

Next: Family History Center records and services.

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Information from published church brochures was included in this report.

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Donna Murray Allen welcomes your questions about genealogy and will respond to those of general interest in future columns. Sorry, she can't take phone calls, but you can write to her c/o Home & Garden, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or e-mail her at rootscolumn@aol.com.

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