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The LDS Family History Library

The LDS Family History Library serves as the flagship for over four thousand satellite family history centers in more than eighty-eight countries. Records for hundreds of millions of individuals are available for inspection and investigation. About two thousand people visit the library each day.

Family History Library

David M. Whitchurch

Researching family history is important for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who believe that husbands and wives and their children can be united as a family for eternity. President Wilford Woodruff established the first Genealogical Society of Utah in 1894.

Apostle Franklin D. Richards was its first president and donated his personal genealogical library to get it started. The original site for the society was a small room above the church historian’s office located at 47 East South Temple (southeast of where the Church Administration Building now stands). The present facility opened in 1985.

The Church Historian’s office used to sit across the street south of the current Church Administration Building. Early efforts to help Latter-day Saints identify their kindred dead began in meetings held here.
Photo by C. R. Savage courtesy of Richard K. Winters

Two tireless proponents of family history in early Salt Lake City were Susa Young Gates, daughter of Brigham Young, and Joseph Fielding Smith, President of the Church in 1970. Susa was close to death in London in 1901 after returning from a women’s conference in Copenhagen. Reduced to eighty-five pounds, she sought a blessing from Elder Franklin D. Richards, the mission president in England.

At first, his words seemed to prepare her for death, but after a pause, he said, “There has been a council held in heaven, and it has been decided you shall live to perform temple work, and you shall do a greater work than you have ever done before.” She recovered and lived to write, publicize, lead, and teach on behalf of the Genealogical Society for many years. Her diligence trained an entire generation of genealogists who helped further family history from the early to mid-1900s throughout the Church.

Microfilm and other records are kept in climate-controlled vaults
Photo by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. ©

Joseph Fielding Smith sought to elevate family history work as a major mission of the Church. He traveled, spoke, and wrote throughout his life about the importance of identifying ancestors and providing temple ordinances for them. “Redeeming the dead” was eventually recognized as one of the threefold objectives of the mission of the Church.

In October 1938 the Church began microfilming family, civil, and vital government records. In 1963 the Granite Mountain Records Vaults were completed in Little Cottonwood Canyon about twenty miles southeast of downtown Salt Lake City. Original microfilm records needed to be kept there, where temperature and humidity would be optimal for storage. The vaults comprise six tunnels, each 190 feet long, bored into the same rock formation used to quarry stone for the construction of the Salt Lake Temple. The book Roots by Alex Haley, the television mini-series that followed, and Haley’s subsequent appearance on The Tonight Show in 1977, brought the library into the national spotlight. An international flurry of interest in family history followed.

Interesting Facts

  • This building is the largest family history library in the world.
  • The Family History Library sits on the homesite of early Apostle George A. Smith, one of the original pioneers to enter the Salt Lake Valley with Brigham Young.

By 2004 there were over 2.4 million rolls of microfilm housed in the library. Full- and part-time professionals, along with many well-trained volunteers, help patrons search the records on film and computer. “The Web site was designed to handle 25 million hits per day, but soon after the official launch, the site was overwhelmed by more than 40 million hits per day—representing roughly 400,000 users—as well as an estimated additional 60 million unsuccessful daily hits.”

Long rows of microfilm cabinets hold family history information accessible to library patrons
Photo by David M. Whitchurch

An interesting family story is preserved regarding an important event on this site: Elder George A. Smith built an adobe house with a garden and an orchard on this property. Water from City Creek flowed down ditches at the side of the road. He planted the first crop of potatoes in the Valley. Elder Smith was asked to colonize southern Utah, and the city of St. George is named after him. He later became a counselor in the First Presidency of the Church. He died in 1875 at age fifty-eight.

His grandson George Albert Smith grew up in a home on the northwest corner of South Temple and West Temple streets (next to his grandfather’s home) and in 1945 became the eighth President of the Church. An interesting family story is preserved regarding an important event on this site:

Sarah Farr Smith [wife of John H. Smith] had just finished cleaning the kitchen after the family noontime meal when she heard a firm knock at the back door of her home at 23 North West Temple in Salt Lake City. Proceeding to the door, she was not particularly surprised to see a poor but tidy-looking gentleman standing on her porch. She didn’t know the elderly man, but it was not uncommon for transients to come to her home from the nearby railroad station asking for a meal. As Sarah often tired of serving food at all hours of the day to whoever came by, her husband, John Henry, had purchased “meal tickets” to give to those in need, which enabled them to eat a satisfying meal at a nearby restaurant.

A portrait of John Henry Smith and his wife Sarah Farr Smith, parents of George Albert Smith.
Photo by Utah Sate Historical Society

There was something different about this particular man, and Sarah felt moved to invite him in to her kitchen table. As he was eating, the man suddenly asked where Sarah’s young son George Albert was. She indicated that he was outside playing in the yard. He then asked her to call the youth into the house so he could see him. Again she felt compelled to comply, although she was hesitant to leave a stranger alone in the house. She found George Albert, who was about eight years old, playing at a nearby two-story building north of their house, underneath a second-story balcony from which steps descended to the ground level. When she reentered her house with her young son at her side, the gentleman was gone. Sarah was searching through the house for him when she heard a loud crashing sound outside. She rushed out to see what had happened and was astonished to discover that the balcony and staircase under which her son had just been playing had collapsed, sending large beams and pieces of lumber crashing down onto playthings he had left behind just moments before.