Mention the Utah State Historical Society and many might think first of professorial scholars hunkered among the shelves and shelves of books, diaries and artifacts available to them for research purposes.
That image is not unfounded, but it is only part of the story.The society, housed in the stately Denver & Rio Grande Railroad station west of Pioneer Park, also offers museum exhibits, a book shop - and, via the Utah History Information Center, access to histories, historic documents and photographs for anyone interested in stopping by.
"A lot of people don't even know we're here," says Alan Barnett, information services manager, who is in charge of the library on the society's second floor. "They know the Historical Society is here, but are amazed when they learn about some of the resources we have."
Yes, the center serves professional historians. "But we also get a lot of people doing family histories and community histories, schoolchildren doing reports and high school and college students doing papers and research projects," Barnett said.
Maps, directories and old photos are valuable aids to owners of old homes and business buildings who want to trace the histories, past ownership and even, as is sometimes possible, the appearance of their properties for restoration and preservation purposes, Barnett said.
The statehood centennial in 1996 and the pioneer sesquicentennial last year brought in a lot of people, he said, "researching pioneers or ancestors and the pioneer trek. There was a lot of interest in that. I think it's died down a little bit now."
Visitors can't take books and materials home with them. "This is not a public library - we're more like a special collections library," Barnett said. "However, people can photocopy anything we have, at 10 cents a copy."
One is likely to see several people in the library working on various projects at most any time.
On a quiet weekday, two women were discussing a planned biography about a notable community leader while a young woman was thumbing through a file drawer stuffed with antique photos mounted on large cardboard cards. She was looking for pictures of Utah's petroglyphs and pictographs.
"I personally think this is the funnest thing we have," Barnett said. "A lot of people just like to come in and browse."
The files hold hundreds of old black and white photographs and some illustrations, on subjects ranging from Utah's rivers and streams to modes of transportation, the faces of notable people and the state's schools, churches, hospitals and residences. They show what life was like way back when.
But this easily tapped collection is just the tip of the iceberg.
"We have hundreds of thousands of photographs," he said, donated by individuals, photo studios, newspapers and other businesses and available to researchers.
The society will print copies of photographs for various fees, depending upon the sizes requested.
Meanwhile, Connie Edholm sat at a table studying individual memoirs preserved in the 1930s and '40s as part of a federal Works Progress Administration history project. Edholm is in the midst of a long-term effort to write a book-length biography of one of her ancestors, Jefferson Hunt, a leader in the Mormon Battalion and an intrepid explorer and pioneer who helped establish communities from Idaho to California.
She's been fascinated by discoveries about the man and his extended relations and allies. "It's more exciting than I anticipated," Edholm said.
The Utah History Information Center, she added, has proved invaluable, with its trove of history books and family histories.
"These guys are great," she said of the staff. "They just have wonderful collection of things."
Immediately handy for most projects are scores of history books about Utah and its communities, as well as LDS encyclopedias and the Utah Code, the state's law books. A complete set of the Utah Historical Quarterly lines several shelves. Old directories can help researchers track down names and property ownership through decades past.
Card catalogs and the periodical and biography indexes direct people to specific magazines, books, clipping files, diaries and unpublished manuscripts. The catalog is currently being put on computer, along with other aids, Barnett said, "so people can work at home." This fall is the target date for completion of the project.
The majority of these books and documents, as well as the society's microfilm and map collections, are not on the display shelves; they are in the archives.
This is true also of the collected papers of such notables as historian Juanita Brooks, musician Eugene Jelesnik and public figures like Susa Young Gates and Elbert Thomas.
Anyone can donate family papers of historic interest to the society, Barnett noted.
"People die and their children don't know what things are," he said. "If they throw them away, history is lost. When they are able to donate, we can preserve them for the public."
The Utah State Historical Society and its Utah History Information Center are at 300 Rio Grande St. For information, call 533-3535. The society Web site, (http://history.utah.org/), summarizes the state's history and offers chronologies, vignettes and indexes.