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How misleading they can be

It’s often the first five words that flash through a genealogist’s mind.

We hear about a repository that specializes in a particular type of records, and the first five words that we think of are: “That’s not about my family.”

And oh how misleading those words can be if we let them dissuade us from taking a look anyway.

The Legal Genealogist confesses those “not my family” words were certainly the first five words that traversed whatever grey matter is left on arrival at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.

The stop was one of four on a behind-the-scenes library tour organized by the Utah chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists before the start of this year’s APG Professional Management Conference.

Joe Everett and Debbie Gurtler each did an absolutely amazing job leading a couple of dozen genealogists through the back rooms of the Family History Library, through the former Hotel Utah (now the Joseph Smith Memorial Building), to the top of the Church Office Building (what a view as you can see below of the Utah State Capitol building) and the Church History Library.

Utah statehouse

But, I confess, the Church History Library was the one stop I didn’t think I’d be interested in. After all, I thought: “That’s not about my family.”

And while it may be true that the repository isn’t likely to produce records of my family’s Methodists and Baptists and Lutherans, all I can say is… boy oh boy — what I would have missed if I’d passed up the chance to hear Library Director Keith Erekson talk about what this remarkable repository actually does hold.

Yes, it is the official archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, called LDS or Mormons by some. But consider that one of the early church leaders, Brigham Young, was also the territorial governor. Does that mean what you think it might?

Yup. Sure does.

There are tons of papers related to the territorial time period in these archives — and so much of what the library holds has been digitized and is available, free to all — church members or not.

Using the search term “Utah territory,” the catalog of the Church History Library (available at — returns more than 1,000 digital items — 966 listed as archival material and 80 as library material.

What kind of items? Glad you asked. Here’s just the smallest bit of what comes up:

• Utah Territory Legislative Assembly papers, 1851-1872 (Files of the first through the twentieth sessions of the Utah territorial legislative assemblies. Several sessions contain files for both the Council and the House of Representative).

• Utah territorial papers, 1853-1873 (Letters and other documents pertaining to the administration of the Territory of Utah. Includes papers relating to the Mormon War, proceedings of the Governor’s office, journals of the proceedings of the Territorial courts, and other matters.).

• Utah Territory constitutional convention papers, 1856.

• Names of the members and officers of the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Utah, with the standing committees.

• Utah Territory. Library papers, 1850-1855 (Papers relating to John M. Bernhisel’s activities as special agent to collect books for the Utah Territorial Library).

There are photos. There are maps. There are letters and books and journals — including the territorial legislative journals.

There is so much that’s relevant to anyone doing any kind of research in Utah. Church history? Oh yeah. But beyond that Utah history. In spades.

You can get what’s called a church account — log-in credentials — without being a church member, and that unlocks some features of the website. Most, however, are available without logging in, and the digital holdings are worth it.

So the next time we hear about a repository — an archives or library — that seems to specialize in a type of records that isn’t obviously relevant to our research, we need to throttle the impulse to utter those first five words: “That’s not about my family.”

Because there’s so much held by so many seemingly specialized repositories that’s relevant to all of us, we need to learn to make a different five words be the first that come to mind.

Oh, boy… I can’t wait…

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Those first five words,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 20 Sep 2019).

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