Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
With a 3-D backdrop of New York Harbor and some sailing ships, there's something new afoot at the FamilySearch Center in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.
Welcome to a surprising 3-D replica of a wharf at Ellis Island, circa 1890, complete with wooden barrels and crates.
"This is a hidden nugget," Paul Nauta, FamilySearch public affairs manager, said. "Few people know about it yet."
This facsimile is phase one of a four-part, ongoing renovation of the facility that could span about three years. Even unfinished, visitors can sit on a barrel and take a picture as if they were on Ellis Island, back in time.
Ellis Island was the standard entry facility for many immigrants to the United States, most from the 1890s to the 1920s. About half of all Americans can trace relatives through Ellis.
Nauta said when the set is completed in about three months, staff will be able to shoot a digital photo of visitors on the Ellis Island set and e-mail it to them later.
Also to be included will be nearby displays about the origin and history of records, with more interactive displays, lining the facility's outer walls.
Hopes are that other phases may include a huge tree replica in the room's center and other attractions, yet to be finalized, that will likely highlight Salt Lake City's and Utah's wonders, natural and man-made.
There's already a kids area where youngsters can draw family trees and create tombstone rubbings, too.
"This won't be a 'shhh' zone anymore," Nauta said. "We hope it will be extremely fun and attractive."
He stressed that non-Mormons can also feel comfortable that they will not be proselyted at the FamilySearch Center, owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Only those who ask for church information will get it from the volunteers who staff the facility.
Nauta said conference visitors, tourists or the public with 15-30 minutes to spare should consider visiting the FamilySearch Center, not just for the Ellis Island replica but also to test-drive one of some 100 computers available for an overview of FamilySearch.org.
Dramatic improvements coming soon to the site will also make more research tools more accessible.
An ultimate goal for FamilySearch is to have one-stop shopping for all family records on its Web site. High resolution documents to view is another key goal.
"Our goal is to create a searchable world index," Nautu said. Currently about 1 billion names are available in its database.
According to Nauta, the majority of users of its Web sites are non-Mormons.
"The genealogical craze is phenomenal," he said. "It's not indigenous to the LDS faith only."
He said the total number of users a month of the main Web site is in the millions and people of all faiths and races are using it.
Those who want a see a preview or even use some of the new programs and options being tweaked should go to labs.familysearch.org.
(Church members in certain geographical areas, like the Ogden Temple District, may already have access to a new, separate FamilySearch Web site.)
The FamilySearch "Labs" Web site showcases new family history technologies that aren't ready for prime time. Anyone can access that site now and their feedback will be used to refine new ideas and bring them to market sooner.
"It's (name) extraction on steroids," Nauta said, noting that people can do the family research 24/7 at a home computer.
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