Midwest Genealogy Center officials and patrons Friday celebrated the approximately 1 million family historians who have visited the Independence complex in the past decade. The day-long tenth anniversary celebration -- with a free photo and document digitizing session, speakers, refreshments and live music -- drew more than 40 community and library staff participants who gave accolades to the largest free-standing facility of its kind in the country.
“We already had a world-class general library,” Mid-Continent Public Library Director and CEO Steve Potter told those gathered, remembering before the facility was built in 2008.
Genealogy Center director Cheryl Lang reminded those gathered that the library’s genealogy collection initially was housed at Mid-Continent’s North Independence branch on U.S. 24, but the collection outgrew that space, she said.
Potter added, “What we needed was a facility that made people want to donate materials and … comfortable enough to be here all day,” he said. “This building performed pretty much exactly the way we wanted it to.”
After the ceremony, attendees shared stories about their family research efforts. Rita Foot, of Tollville, Arkansas, said she‘s a regular customer while visiting Missouri each year for a family reunion.
“I always plan for a couple of extra days to research,” she said.
Carol Cook, of Lee’s Summit, said she and her husband, Dave, mostly conduct research online at home but plan to start a new practice.
“I really do want to start coming here,” she said. “It’s crazy not to take advantage of it.”
Gloria Smith, of Independence, said she regularly celebrates the center and its resources.
“I love it when I come in here for a few hours,” she said. “It’s like I’ve given myself a gift.”
In celebrating the past, center officials talked of the future and the planned 15,000-square-foot addition to be constructed beginning later this month. The addition will allow the center to host larger events, including classes and symposiums accommodating up to 400 people. The theater-style space will be furnished with round tables to accommodate luncheons and will be equipped with dividers for smaller break-out sessions, Potter said.
Raejean Overholtzer said she’s looking forward to larger programs in the addition. As a seasoned genealogist, she said she wants programs tailored to more advanced methods.
During an interview before the celebration, Lang said she was a patron before she was an employee. More than a quarter century ago, when she was only in her 20s, she launched a journey in search of her ancestry. She was a standout among the mostly silver-haired ladies who took up the hobby.
Back then, the small group of “niche” researchers were limited to a few paper and microfiche documents housed at the U.S. 24 site. As genealogy became more popular, during the 1980s and 90s, Mid-Continent officials noted the need for a special research facility.
“Genealogy anywhere starts in the basement,” she said, adding that, in the past, it traditionally was “not the most popular collection” in the library’s system. But, that has changed with the advent of popular television shows focusing on celebrity ancestry or the everyday person who unexpectedly learns they share a family tie with someone well known. Such shows, and the growing popularity of DNA tests, have fed the public’s fascination with ancestry, she said.
The genealogy center has changed the way many people do such research. More than 10,000 people travel from throughout the country and some from as far away as Australia and Europe seeking help and information. Visitors choose from more than 1 million resources ranging from paper documents to dozens of internet-driven sites, Lang said. Online resources are continuously expanding. Use of all materials, including the internet search engines, is free. Nearly 10 full-time and about 35 part-time professionals with a passion for the past are available to assist.
“We (employees) love this place,” Lang said, concluding her remarks during the celebration. “Because people are coming in here to find their family history and that’s what feeds our soul.”