Remember that old Maytag repair man? He was described in Maytag's television ads as "the loneliest man in the world." That meant, obviously, that a Maytag product could be depended upon never to need a repairman, at least if you wanted to take their word for it. So, bored and waiting, the poor tech kept his lonely vigil.
Some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints whose assignments are to staff the thousands of family history centers around the world used to complain that they had similar experiences, often being the only ones to show up at the local center at the appointed time.
Things have changed. Today, hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to the centers in search of help for their family history objectives.
Last week, my friend, former co-worker and now fellow missionary Angelyn Hutchinson and I trekked to Ogden to visit the regional center there at 539 24th St. It was a great experience. In the world of family history centers, this is a supermarket with two buildings loaded with every conceivable tool to help serious researchers learn about and apply principles that expand their family lines and lead to redemptive work in temples.
We were greeted by the current center directors, David and Cindy Erickson, who are fulfilling a three-year assignment. They obviously take pride in the work that goes on under their leadership. They shared a presentation created to observe the center's recent 50th anniversary. That makes Ogden a patriarch among the near-5,000 centers now in operation around the world. Most of them have much shorter histories.
Ogden got a leg up on the do-it-yourself genealogy concept in 1966 when interested parties in the city petitioned the Utah Genealogical Society for inclusion. The program was housed in several locations as its mission expanded. Wherever it was centered, the objectives were the same: to help families cement eternal relationships by searching for kin and learning more about ancestors. The center's amenities, however, have always been open to all genealogists, regardless of religion, who have the same enthusiasm for ancestor-searching. Elder Erickson says some 6 to 7 percent of those who use the Ogden facility are not members of the LDS Church.
The current home consists of an old Weber College Institute building that was added to the complex when the program outgrew a separate building completed in 1977.
An estimated 28,000 visits are recorded each year. People come for personal help with genealogical searches (324 missionaries take shifts, ready and trained to help), they can attend classes on a wide range of topics and they can log into the Relative Finder site at relativefinder.org and see to whom they are related among the world's popular and notable. Patrons can scan photos (25 at a session) or other printed materials and have books digitized and added to the church collection of online-available volumes (find them on FamilySearch.org). Also, they can create books of their own and they can check archives to see if they have pioneer ancestors. Or they can try a slice of "Grandma's pie" to determine what percentage of their makeup comes from what countries, and they can also take a cemetery tour. The list goes on and on.
Nancy Harrop, of North Ogden, said she has been using the center's resources to pursue her family history focus: double-checking for children who might not have been sealed to their families. For instance, sometimes in earlier days, a child who died early might not have been recorded.
"I check into all the dead ends," she said.
She has found several little ones and seen to it that they are sealed to their families. Among these are a sister of one of her great-grandmothers, a child who had been overlooked in the pioneer-era records.
Ogden is one of 15 regional centers that offer services beyond the ordinary. Another one will open in Layton in November.Comment on this story
But at all the local centers, microfilm has almost disappeared and digital records have eased the search. Even in the smallest of the centers, there is capacity to digitize photos and other records.
If you haven't visited your neighborhood family history center in a while, plan to do so soon. The Maytag repairman is awake and on the move.
Family History Centers
Local centers: 4,946 as of September 2016
Large regional libraries: 15, located in Western U.S.
Countries served: 132
Estimated 2015 visitors: 790,000
Estimated 2015 non-LDS visitors: 154,000
Twila Van Leer is a former Deseret News editor and staff writer who serves as a family history missionary.