Stephen Anderson recently spent some time visiting with Vona Williams, manager British Research Consultation unit in FamilySearch. He asked Vona some questions about what the British Research Unit in the Family History Library does and some of the experiences they’ve had. The following is a short overview of what he discovered.
Vona, how many people do you have in the British Reference Unit in the library?
There are 15 full time employees who serve at the desk. Some of them have worked there for two or three decades. They are good at what they do and they know their stuff. In addition to those employees, we are blessed to have the help of another 120-125 family history missionaries in our unit. Our missionaries are a big help. With the number of people who visit the library each year, I don’t think we could do what we do without the help of these missionaries.
I’ve asked some of your employees some tough questions as I’ve worked with them on some of my own research. I am impressed with their knowledge.
With the extensive training they get, they are some of the best reference librarians on the subject of the British Isles that you will find anywhere in the United States. Every 4 or 5 years, our employees spend 2 to 3 weeks in the British Isles getting hands-on experience with the records they use in searching families in the British Isles. They establish professional relationships with their peers in the British Isles and they learn how to use new records and research tools. When they come back, they share what they have learned with the other employees and the many of the missionaries who may have never been to the British Isles. That way, all of our employees and missionaries benefit from those experiences.
When someone refers to the British Isles what exactly does that include?
The countries that are included in the collections of the British Isles floor include, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Channel Islands, Isle of Man, Australia, New Zealand. Our section typically does not include many of the Colonial British countries once owned by Britain.
Are the majority of the patrons you help members of the Church?
About half of the people we help are members while the other half are not. It’s about an even 50-50 split.
When your staff members are not at the desk what else do they do?
Our staff members do a lot to help patrons whether they are here at the Library or elsewhere. Some of these include:
- Teaching patron classes here in the library
- Preparing classes that are posted on FamilySearch
- Write articles for the FamilySearch Wiki
- Give presentations at family history conferences
- Host VIPs that come to the library. On average we get 10-12 VIPs a year
- Contribute posts to the FamilySearch Blog
- Create and present webinars to groups in other countries
- Serve on department committees that provide content knowledge and expertise to our product managers, developers, and engineers.
I’ve heard that you folks keep a collection of thank you letters, funny experiences and neat moving experiences that staff members and patrons have had while doing this work. Would you feel comfortable sharing one or two with us?
Well, on the funny side, we did have a gentleman who suggested we have a big gong that patrons can use anytime they found an ancestor. We kindly thanked him and passed on that suggestion.
As you might expect doing this kind of work, we have had a lot of marvelous experiences. We believe that when we are at the counter, we are just the right person to be helping on the counter at that time. We feel we are the right person to answer the specific questions a patron might have. I will share an example of what I mean.
One evening, I was filling in for someone else who was scheduled but couldn’t make it. That night a woman came and asked a question about records that I knew all about because I have used them to do my husbands research. In fact, we discovered that she was working on my husband’s line. We traded information and I was able to provide her with tips and suggestions that made her research so much easier. I was not scheduled for that shift that night. But if I had not taken that shift for the other person, that patron and I would never have met. Those kinds of experience happen more often than you might think.
We have had a lot of motivating and inspiring experiences. We have patrons who come and tell us how marvelous this place is. I will share another experience that happened in 2006. A gentleman came from San Diego, California to do research. He was a retired history professor. He came and told one of our staff members: “I am compelled to say that not only do you have a wonderful resource of records that is one of the best in the world, but more importantly, there are few places that I see and feel God, but I feel Him here in each one of you. In your smiles, your hearty greetings, your warm and friendly assistance and your endless patience with those of us who have no idea of what w e are doing. God is not in buildings or things, he is in people and he is in each of you. Thank you so much for the experience.”
It’s experiences like these that make me feel so lucky to work here. I know it’s the right place to be and the right work to be involved in.