Church News - The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Early LDS genealogist elected to hall of fame

Published: Saturday, June 18, 1994

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Archibald Fowler Bennett, who pioneered acquisition of genealogical materials for the Church, has been posthumously elected to the National Genealogy Hall of Fame.

The honor was given at the society's June 3 meeting in Houston.Brother Bennett, who died in 1965, is the first Church member to be elected to the Genealogy Hall of Fame, and the ninth person to receive the honor, according to Varney R. Nell, chairman of the hall of fame committee. The honor is given annually for significant contributions to the field of genealogy in the United States.

Brother Bennett was nominated by the Genealogical Society of Utah (alternate name for the Church Family History Department). The nomination was endorsed by U.S. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt, the California State Genealogical Society and the Illinois State Genealogical Society.

A prolific author of genealogical books and articles, Brother Bennett was a sought-after speaker and a renowned genealogical educator. For many years he edited the Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine and served as the general secretary of the Genealogical Society of Utah.

For more than 30 years he was head librarian of what is now known as the Family History Library, building the library's collection until it became the largest of its kind in the world. He was largely responsible for launching the microfilming program of the Church and also organized the network of family history centers now used by Church members and genealogists worldwide.

Brother Bennett's election to the National Genealogy Hall of Fame coincides with the centennial anniversary of the Genealogical Society of Utah, the organization he represented during his entire career. According to chairman Nell, he was elected by a wide margin in the first year he was nominated, a distinction held by few members of the Hall of Fame and indicative of his great influence on American genealogy.

In a letter of endorsement, Gov. Leavitt wrote: "Bennett symbolizes the Genealogical Society of Utah and its commitment to genealogical records preservation and access."

Genealogists throughout the United States also endorsed the nomination. Josephine Moeller, president of the Illinois State Genealogical Society, said: "Honoring the instigator of this microfilming program is long overdue. For those of us who have not had the freedom to travel, using their microfilms was the only way that we could search original records and do our genealogical research."

Loretto Szucs, a professional genealogist and Chicago author and editor, expressed commendation for "his vision and genius in setting up the tremendous microfilming program and the family history centerT branches that benefit millions of genealogists."

Archibald F. Bennett was born March 17, 1896, in Dingle, Idaho, the fourth son and sixth child in a family of 13 children born to William David and Emma Neat Bennett. Within months of his 3rd birthday, the family moved to southern Alberta in Canada, where his father worked on a new canal being constructed in that area. Archie, as he was known by many, spent his boyhood in Taber, Alberta, where he graduated from high school and began teaching. He attended Normal School in Calgary, Alberta, received a first-class teacher's certificate in 1915, and taught until his enlistment in the Canadian army in 1916. He served in France during World War I until his discharge in 1919.

Upon his return to Alberta, he resumed teaching. There he met Ella Milner, whom he married in 1921. The next summer they decided to move to Salt Lake City, where Brother Bennett attended the University of Utah. He received a bachelor's degree in 1925 and a master's in 1926 in history and political science.

Brother Bennett's interest in genealogy was sparked when he was 15 years old while helping his mother prepare a Relief Society lesson about genealogy. After moving to Salt Lake City, he took advantage of the small genealogical library run by the Genealogical Society of Utah. He began publishing articles in the society's quarterly periodical in 1927. In 1928, while preparing to move east to pursue doctoral studies, he was asked to become the secretary of the society and the editor of the quarterly. The following year he was appointed librarian for the society.

Holding these positions for many years, Brother Bennett had the opportunity to shape the Genealogical Society of Utah in many ways. As the head librarian for more than 30 years, he built the collection from about 10,000 volumes and no microfilms into the largest in the country, with more than 70,000 volumes and more than 300,000 rolls of microfilm. He worked to fulfill the vision that Nephi Anderson, an early assistant secretary of the society, spoke of 1911: "Let me suggest the future of this work. I see the records of the dead and their histories gathered from every nation under heaven to one great central library . . . the largest and best equipped for its particular work in the world."

As the editor of the Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine until it was discontinued in 1940, Brother Bennett managed the largest-circulation genealogical magazine of its time. In an era when other national societies had between 300 and 3,000 members, his tireless support and encouragement of the Genealogical Society of Utah brought its membership to more than 9,000 in 1939.

As the general secretary for the society until 1961, Brother Bennett led the organization through its most formative years. The society acquired its first microfilm camera and reader, and purchased the first microfilms in 1938. He was one of the first champions of filming original records so library users would not have to travel all over the world consulting records. As early as January 1939, he and a photographer packed the camera and other equipment in a suitcase and travled 120 miles in a snowstorm to film Manti Temple records.

Brother Bennett's greatest work in records preservation came after World War II. The society sent him to the Eastern states in 1946 where he supervised filming already in process in Pennsylvania and negotiated filming contracts in Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Virginia. During this trip he once wrote home, "I am having a thrilling time dashing about as talent scout for the microfilm machine."

The next year, Brother Bennett traveled to Europe, where he visited record holders in 11 countries from Italy to Scandinavia to Great Britain. By the end of four months, he had agreements in almost every country he visited. In 1948, he returned to conclude unfinished business and completed contracts in three more countries. He also had the chance to help microfilm records in Italy.

In one region, the filming was done in the hotel because it was the only building with access to sufficient power. Brother Bennett drove the narrow dirt roads collecting the parish records and returning them to the hotel. At one location, the road ended when there was still a 20-minute walk to the village. Brother Bennett climbed the hillside in pouring rain, wrapped 78 church register books in the filmer's raincoat and carried them back to the car.

In 1964, Brother Bennett was asked by the trustees of the Genealogical Society of Utah to develop the "branch genealogical library" program. These "branch libraries" (later renamed family history centers), established in LDS meetinghouses, offered their patrons access via microfilm to the vast collection of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. By the time he died a year later, he had inspected and approved the first 21 branch libraries.