The people who plan programs for the family history component of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints just won't leave me alone. They are bound and determined to deprive me of any excuses I have for not getting more involved in my family research.
The latest wrinkle is a wonderful new Discovery Experience section on the main floor of the Family History Library in downtown Salt Lake City. It opened to the public Feb. 7, just in time to make it available to the thousands of genealogy-minded people who attended the RootsTech family history and technology conference a block down the street at the Salt Palace.
The center takes up 10,000-plus square feet of space and is jam-packed with interactive displays that give visitors a taste of family connections that, hopefully, will lead to a desire for more study about individual families.
The operative word here is "discovery." The center doesn't offer in-depth research opportunities. That's already in place in other areas of the library. The purpose, according to library manager Tamra Stansfield, is to give guests a sense they are part of something larger. She said library officials project they will see four times the number of visits now made to the companion center opened two years ago in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. (That center will remain open as well.)
The Discovery Center likely will be a major draw for tourists and locals. As it is, the library is one of the top magnets for tourists who visit Salt Lake City, according to tripadvisor.com, an indication of the popularity of genealogy throughout the world.
So, what can you learn when you visit the center? Pick up one of the 100 custom tablets as you go in. You also have access to 44 touchscreen monitors and 42 computers. They offer a variety of insights into where your family may have originated, what was going on in the world when a progenitor was born, what kind of clothing they may have worn and so on. You can even put your face into a photo portrait of a person who could resemble your kin.
One of the perennial favorites is a "relatives search" that tells what famous people in history you may be related to. I have distant connections to Mark Twain and Lucille Ball. Are you just dying of envy? (Of course, I may also have ties to Jack the Ripper and Genghis Khan. One never knows.)
The center boasts six recording studios to help people create high-definition videos of their family collections, all for free. There is a children's area to keep little ones busy while parents sit at computers on a counter, with easy view of children's activities.
At the Feb. 7 opening ceremony, Stephen Rockwood, managing director of the Family History Department of the LDS Church, said he expects kids to bring their parents, rather than the other way around. To prove his point — that more young people are getting bitten by the family history bug — the hosts who helped guests on opening day were young people ages 12 and up. See, there goes my conscience again. If a 12-year-old can do it, why can't I? I could, my conscience responds, if I were truly motivated.
The sight of all those young people, many recent graduates from Primary, the LDS Church's organization for children up to 12 years old, must have given a little extra pitty-pat to the heart of Sister Joy D. Jones, Primary general president, who was among the church leaders who participated in the grand opening. She said that the center just "reached out and grabbed my heart." A descendant of Danish immigrants, she said one of the highlights of her visit was being photographed, posed on a Danish hillside (a simulation, of course).
That's the kind of feeling the center's designers hope all visitors will experience: a connection to something universal.
Rockwood expressed another thought that lodged in my brain for further consideration. He said the drive to connect families today is similar to the impetus that sent the Book of Mormon's Nephi back to Laban to obtain family records before he and his family departed Jerusalem for an unknowable future in a distant land (see 1 Nephi 4).Comment on this story
Genealogy and family history are not new. They're inescapable. We all are pinpoints in a vast congregation of people, each unique, each valuable, each in need of being connected. Get going, Sister Van Leer.
More information about the Discovery Experience at the Family History Library at familysearch.org/discovery.
Additional note: For those who might wonder if Lila Eddington reached her goal of 600,000 index items before her 95th birthday, she did. She emailed me Feb. 11 to report she had reached the objective before her birthday, Thursday, Feb. 23. Good going, Lila.
Twila Van Leer is a former Deseret News editor and staff writer who serves as a family history missionary.