SALT LAKE CITY – When Jan Gow makes her annual pilgrimage from New Zealand to Salt Lake City, it’s not to enjoy Utah’s ski resorts, red rock canyons or five national parks. It’s for the ribbons of microfilm and endless volumes of maps, cemetery and property records tucked inside the Family History Library.
The library, owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 1894, is visited by about 700,000 people annually and is widely considered the world’s largest repository of genealogy records. It’s a favorite destination for genealogy tourists – a devoted breed of traveler bent on tracing family trees.
A woman once asked me to give her four words to explain why she should come to Salt Lake City and not just research it all from home online, said Gow, 70, of Auckland, who first came here in 1981 and has returned more than 25 times.
I could think of one: Immediacy, Gow said. When we’re here, we can immediately pull out a film, or pull out a book, look at a computer, because it’s all here. There’s nowhere else, just nowhere else.
The Family History Library’s catalog of resources – free for use by church members and non-members alike – includes more than 2 billion names of deceased persons, 2.2 million rolls of microfilm, 300,000 books and 4,500 periodicals.
These resources make the library a must visit destination for anyone who does genealogical work, said Jan Alpert, who heads the board of the 10,000-member National Genealogical Society. In April, NGS held its annual convention in Salt Lake City and drew a record attendance of more than 2,600, she said.
But it’s also far from the only place to go, Alpert said.
In addition to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and its regional archives across the United States, there are a number of exceptional genealogical collections across the country, Alpert said.
On Alpert’s list is the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, where the collection of nearly 10,000 digital volumes is the second-largest in the country and the largest at a public library in the U.S.
The collection includes extensive military history records, along with Native American and African-American records. The library markets extensively to historical societies and other genealogy groups.
We’re always featured in the convention and visitors bureau guide, said Curt Witcher, the library’s senior manager of special collections. About 90 percent of our patrons are from out of our county.
And visitors tend to return. People have fun here, and they are successful, Witcher said.
That Fort Wayne and Salt Lake City are not exotic destinations isn’t important, said Carla Santos, an assistant professor of tourism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose study of genealogy tourists at the Allen County library was published in the Journal of Travel Research.
The study found that genealogy tourists considered travel destinations secondary to their trip’s goal of collecting information.
What that tells us is that genealogy tourism is not area-specific, Santos said. So technically, then, every community has something to offer, because everyone has a family story that connects them to somewhere.
Many communities and some countries have recognized the genealogy draw. Tourism bureaus in England, Ireland and Scotland all credit genealogy research opportunities as being important stimuli for international travel, Santos said.
Back in Salt Lake City, Richard Williams, who manages the Plaza Hotel, said genealogy tourists have been a focus of marketing efforts since the 1980s.
Hotel representatives attend at least six genealogy conferences each year. At least a half-dozen genealogy tour groups return to Salt Lake City annually, he said.
Gow leads a tour to Utah each year for stays of up to three weeks before heading to the United Kingdom. This year, the trip cost each traveler about $8,000, she said.
I can tell you that genealogy is a quarter of our business, maybe more, said Williams, whose 150-room property is close to the downtown library.
The down economy has hit us a little bit, but our genealogy business has been steady. Some of the groups were not as strong in numbers, but they still came.
A virtual visit
Interest in genealogy websites is also high. Of an estimated 800 million Internet users in the U.S. and Europe, roughly 15 percent had visited a genealogy-related website, according to a 2005 report from Nielsen/NetRatings. About 8 percent of those users, or about 56 million, were in the U.S., according to the data.
Web hits to Family Search.org and Ancestry .com, two of the largest online databases, are climbing. Ancestry’s annual report showed a 26 percent increase in subscribers – to 1.2 million – between March 31, 2009, and March 31, 2010.
And FamilySearch, an extension of the Mormon church and its library, now has more than a million registered users, according to data from Paul Nauta, spokesman for the Family History Library.
Every time new content is added online, there is a noticeable spike in online patron traffic, Nauta said.