INDEPENDENCE, Mo. -- Dedicated family researchers in the Kansas City area and beyond now have a library to match their ambitions.
The new Midwest Genealogy Center, which opened Saturday, is billed as one the nation's largest libraries specifically for people tracing their ancestry. The 52,000-square-foot building replaces a facility one-quarter its size that was housed in the Mid-Continent Public Library's north Independence branch.
"There aren't too many places where you can research the entire United States in just one spot," said Steve Potter, assistant director of the Mid-Continent system, which serves Jackson, Platte and Clay counties.
Among genealogists, the Mormon church's Family History Library in Salt Lake City is considered the mother lode of information, with millions of documents available online or through local branches.
The next tier is occupied by public libraries in Dallas, Houston, New York, Los Angeles, Ft. Wayne, Ind. and Independence -- a one-time frontier town known as the jumping off spot for westward expansion.
"I don't think there's a full appreciation of how unique this library is," Potter said, referring to local residents.
The library regularly attracts visitors from as far afield as Hawaii, with those conducting more extensive research staying in local hotels.
The $8 million center features ample classrooms, videoconference space and computer work stations. Security and fire safety have improved, and researchers can now digitally convert the documents they find, rather than rely on librarians.
One aspect of the genealogy library hasn't changed: Unlike many similar collections, almost all of the plat maps, census records, marriage licenses and other documents are accessible directly by the public, not locked away in storage.
"We want to make it easier for people to do research," Potter said.
On a recent afternoon at the former location, Lee's Summit resident Lynda Smith pored over marriage books and chancery court records from Robertson County, Tenn., circa 1860.
Though she has already traced her family roots back more than four centuries, Smith said she expects to put the new library to good use.
"You're never really done," she said, a refrain certain to ring familiar to other amateur family historians.
With more space, the genealogy center expects to boost its public programs and attract regional and national speakers, as well as pursue its own collections.
"It's going to provide us opportunities to do things we could only dream of," Potter said.