BYU library connects ancestors to living descendants in honor of late Pioneer Book store owner

The late Richard Horsley, former owner of Pioneer Book in downtown Provo, always dreamt of returning his personal family history library back into the hands of living descendants. The Harold B. Lee Library is making that dying wish come true. (Melissa Collado)

A BYU librarian and team of student researchers are fulfilling the dying wish of a beloved Provo bookseller by connecting families with their family history archives.

According to Pioneer Book managing partner Scott Glenn, Richard Horsley owned the store in downtown Provo for nearly 30 years. Though over time the shop’s location changed, Horsley’s dedication to family history did not. For nearly the entire 30 years Horsley ran Pioneer Book, he collected self-published family history archives donated to his store, Glenn said.

While there is not much of a market for self-published family history books in a used bookstore, Horsley always made sure to keep them so he could study them later, Glenn said. Fascinated with family history, Horsley loved to know family stories and even remembered the last names of each family. He could sometimes return them to descendants he met by happenstance at the store.

Glenn said he knew the impact Horsley had on the customers who shopped at Pioneer Book.

“He died in December of 2018 when he was 87. When people reminisce about him with me in the store, they’ll say he would frequently ask people what their last name was. If he recognized your family name, he would just pull off quotes and facts about your ancestors,” Glenn said.

After Horsley’s death, Glenn helped his family clean out his personal library. In the process, they boxed up hundreds of family histories Horsley had collected over the years. It was then his son mentioned to Glenn it was Horsley’s dying wish for each of these histories to be returned to their living descendants.

For a few years, no one knew exactly what to do with the books. Pioneer Book had nowhere near enough resources to find and connect with the families of so many of these histories, according to Glenn. That was until BYU Family History Librarian Joe Everett connected with Glenn about the project.

“I got chatting with Scott and he told me about Richard Horsley’s collection, and at the same time, we both realized that if these books were available in a library that’s one way that they could be in the hands of descendants,” Everett said.

Everett decided if the Harold B. Lee Library could purchase the family history books, it could in some way satisfy Horsley’s wish. As Everett went through each book, he realized the library already had most of the books in their collection already. However, there were still about 400 books left. This began Everett’s work to return them to their living descendants.

BYU Family History Librarian Joe Everett took over the project with a team of student research assistants. They are using Family Search to find descendants of the authors of the family history books Richard Horsley collected. (Melissa Collado)

With so many books, Everett said he knew right away he would need help. Student research assistants were brought on to assist Everett in finding these descendants. The team got to work on placing them.

The process of finding descendants differs with each book slightly, but one of the main methods is finding the family on Family Search, and then seeing which descendants are actively adding to their family tree and who are interested in their family history. At that point, Everett and his student assistants reach out and explain the project’s background and offer the family a copy of the book they have.

Once the books have been connected to a living descendant, Everett and Glenn send the books to those people with a letter explaining Horsley’s story and a bookplate inside each front cover.

Here is the bookplate that accompanies the family history books when they are returned to the family’s descendants. (Scott Glenn)

“It’s like playing Santa Claus, because we have this treasured family history. The response has been really positive,” Everett said.

Megan Nusink and Carson Robb were brought on to help with the project as student research assistants. Nusink, a 21-year old family history major, said she often has the opportunity to contact families through email.

“I often get really enthusiastic responses back, of people who have been searching for the books for years,” Nusink said.

Nusink and Robb also had individual experiences that have touched their own lives when working on the project. For Nusink, she said it was connecting one of the family history books to a friend from high school who had been searching for the book. Her friend called it a “little miracle.”

For Robb, he said it was placing the book with a family who had been searching for one last copy to place with each of their children. They had been at the end of their rope, unable to find another copy and decided to come together as a family to fast and pray another book could be found. Just 15 days later, Robb said he reached out with the final copy they needed.

The project has had a special impact on each of the people involved, but nearly everyone expressed similar thoughts about its importance.

“We view family history in such a linear way … but to me, family history is a growing and learning thing. It’s not just a period, it’s not always an end-all discovery,” Robb said.

For Everett, the importance of the project has been the message that resonates throughout the work. “It’s been a great experience for the students involved. They are learning at BYU a service to the community that is bringing blessings to both the living and the dead,” he said.

There are still a few hundred books that need to be placed, and Everett said he will continue working on this project until the families have all been connected with them. The importance of Horsley’s dying wish keeps him going.

“Richard Horsley was such a passionate genealogist; this project is really in his honor,” Everett said.

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