25 Tips for Researching at a
Family History Center
Ron Wild offers advice on how to get the most from your local FHC.
FOR THE PAST SEVEN years, I have served as volunteer director at one of the busiest Family History Centers (FHCs) in the world. There are now over 3,600 FHCs in the world and no two have exactly the same local collection or volunteer staff expertise. Call 1-800-346-6044 or visit www.familysearch.com to find out how many centers there are in your region. Visit each of your local centers and make yourself familiar with those that have collections or staff expertise in your current area of research interest.
1. Check out the Family History Library Catalog. The heart of every FHC is the Family History Library Catalog (FHLC), an indexed record of the over two billion records in the vaults of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. It is available in every FHC in either fiche or computer disc format and frequently both. The LDS Church has hundreds of currently active volunteer filming teams in countries around the world and tens of thousands of new records are added each year. The FHLC is updated frequently and a 1999 update is now in FHCs so if you have not checked it out recently then you should do so since records of interest to you may have been added.
The Family History Library Catalog is an invaluable resource available at every FHC.
2. Ask if you can look at films borrowed by other patrons. In a busy FHC, hundreds of films are borrowed from the Salt Lake Distribution Center each month by patrons of the FHC and most librarians keep a record of the titles of borrowed films that are in the library. With permission of the staff you can look at any borrowed films of interest to you and, by asking for the name of the patron who ordered the film, you may find a researcher with a common interest.
3. Ask to look at older versions of the IGI. The International Genealogical Index (IGI) is one of the largest genealogical databases in the world and is available in all FHCs in either fiche or computer disc format and frequently both. The IGI is a living index since tens of thousands of new names are added each month and the IGI is updated on a two-year cycle that can see as many as 25 million new names added. For reasons that are peculiar to the LDS Church, names are sometimes removed from the IGI so it is often useful to look at older fiche versions if the ancestor you are researching is not found on the current version of the IGI. Most FHCs have the 1992 fiche version and some have the earlier 1988 version that included the names of several hundred thousand Holocaust victims.
4. Ask to see the latest Parish List. The IGI is compiled principally from parish records and the names of ancestors submitted by the 10 million members of the LDS Church and extracted by the Church extraction program. Not all parishes have allowed their records to be filmed and even some of those that have been filmed are not yet included on the IGI and may not be for some time. Each FHC has a parish list on fiche that is updated twice each year and lists all of the parish records that are on the IGI and the years covered. Again this is an active list that is added to frequently, but keep in mind that the parish records added will not be available to patrons of the library until the next update of the IGI. However, a search of the Family History Library Catalog will uncover the film number for all parish records available for loan at the FHC and this will include parishes on the IGI and those that are not yet included. Even if your ancestor is on the IGI you may want to borrow the filmed records so that you can see the actual record and search for other ancestors who may be living in the parish but who are as yet undiscovered by you.
5. Do a surname search of the Family History Library Catalog. The computer software installed in FHCs is called FamilySearch and is designed to help you gain access to the over two billion records in the vaults of the Family History Library. One search that is frequently overlooked but which can pay big dividends is a simple surname search that can be found on the FamilySearch menu. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has archived over 150,000 family histories submitted by members and non-members of the Church and these contain not only biographical material but multi-generation pedigrees of the families they cover. By typing into the computer the surname in which you are interested and doing the surname search you will be presented with a list of all of the family histories that include the search surname. It will be up to you to select the family histories that appear to be of interest and, when one is found that you believe includes your ancestors, to borrow the film and search filmed pages of the actual family history.
6. When you complete a successful search of the IGI, make sure you check the source data. When searching the IGI it is often possible to obtain additional information beyond that which is included in the computer record. When you find an IGI record in which you have an interest, press the enter key and additional information will be presented to you. By pressing enter again, the source of that information will be shown and this can be of tremendous value. If the source indicated is a Church Temple batch file then it will be of very limited use to you. On the other hand, if the source is a Family Group Sheet, then you could be in luck. Family Group Sheets are old records submitted by Church members and they frequently include three generations or more of a family and most importantly the name of the record submitter. Each FHC has a form called Requisition for Photocopies IGI Sources form 31831 and, for a fee of $2, up to eight IGI records can be submitted and photocopies of the Family Group Sheets will be made for you and mailed in about 4-6 weeks.
7. On IGI searches, always make a note of the film number that contains the name you have found. Often when searching the IGI the detail on the parish in which the event occurred is skimpy and you need more information on the location and the parish. You should make a note of the film number, which is included at the end of each line on the fiche or by pressing enter twice for a highlighted name when searching by computer. Then, from the FamilySearch menu, enter the film number you have made a note of in the film search number field and full details on the parish will be presented. Since there may be several parishes listed on one film you may have to scroll a few pages to get to the one you want. By pressing enter one more time a list of FHCs who have this film on permanent loan will be shown and if there is one close to you it will allow you to save waiting time and money.
8. Ask if you can use the FamilySearch computer software to copy your data to a computer disk. For those researchers who do not have a computer at home and wish to enter their ancestral information into a computer file to be able to submit it to archives and online databases, Personal Ancestral File (PAF) may be the answer. Each computer-equipped FHC has PAF loaded as part of the FamilySearch program and patrons of the library may book computer time and enter their paper files into a computer at no cost to them other than for a floppy disk on which to store the data entered. These disks are usually available at the FHC at around $1 each and allow patrons to submit data to Ancestral File and many online databases like ancestry.com, myfamily.com, rootsweb.com and mytrees.com that will present your information to a world audience.
9. Be sure to do an Ancestral File computer search for names in which you have an interest. Ancestral File is another FamilySearch program loaded on computers at your FHC and it too can be a powerful tool if an ancestral name in which you have an interest is found. Over 40 million persons are linked in family pedigrees and it is not uncommon to find as many as 15 or 20 linked generations of an ancestral line included. Your own ancestral information can be submitted and will be included in future annual updates of Ancestral File. You may submit your family tree to Ancestral File but one requirement of submitting data is that you must agree to include your name and address and allow yourself to be contacted by interested parties. Some pedigrees have a dozen or more different submitters and they represent a valuable source of additional information and frequently are the means for discovering fellow researchers and unknown family branches who have an ancestor or ancestors in common with you.
10. Ask if there is a Research Outline for the area in which you are researching. Most FHCs keep a file of research outlines on every US state, Canadian province and most countries of the world. These are available at a nominal cost, usually under $1, and are filled with information on the location of record repositories for birth, marriage, death, military, family history and genealogical societies, national and regional archives and special records collections. The research outlines often include details on where records on the history, important biographies and ethnicity of the area can be found. These usually become most valuable when the obvious sources are exhausted and a more sophisticated level of research is required.
11. Ask to see a list of genealogy CDs available in the FHC local collection. The LDS Church has not allowed its Family History Centers to have Internet connections as of this writing but has recently created a website at www.familysearch.com that has become one of the busiest sites on the Internet. Additionally, most FHCs have acquired CDs that allow patrons to search some of the more important genealogy CD collections. These are usually focussed on the areas of interest relevant to the patrons of each individual library. My Toronto FHC has the 1881 British Census Index CDs, British and US Vital Records CDs, 15 of the Brøderbund World Family Tree CDs, The Canadian Genealogical Index CD, The New England Register CDs from NEHGS and many others that patrons find useful in their researches. There are over 1,000 genealogy CDs now available and most FHCs have obtained the ones most important to their patrons.
12. Ask if the FHC has a collection of period maps for the areas in which you are researching. When searching the IGI or census films it is not uncommon to find ancestral families living in small towns and villages with which you are not familiar and you may reject them as not coming from the town in which your ancestors are known to have lived. My own ancestors come from Bradford, Yorkshire, England but this city has incorporated more than 20 villages that were formerly completely separate and distinct places. They seem to have disappeared from modern maps and you need to look at period maps to see the villages at the time your ancestors lived there. All family history centers have a select collection of maps usually associated with the special geographic interests of their patrons and collection. Use this resource so that you can better understand the geographic area in which your ancestors lived. Look at maps at different periods in time so that you can see that villages in which ancestors lived were really within walking distance of each other. It is not at all uncommon for ancestors to have been born in one village, married in another and raised children in a third, all of which are now incorporated into a differently named urban area.
13. Ask if the FHC has Ancestry’s Redbook that shows the formation of US counties over the years. The problem of villages being incorporated into larger urban areas exists in reverse in many US states. At the time of statehood a few very large counties were incorporated and as the population grew these were divided time and time again gaining another county seat each time at which vital, marriage, land and court records might be archived. A good example of this is Buffalo County, North Dakota formed in 1864 from unorganized land and parts of two other counties. Over a period of 10 years Bottineau, Burleigh, De Smet, Gingras, Kidder, Logan, Mountrail, Renville, Rolette, Sheridan, Stevens, Stutsman, Wallette and Wells counties were formed from Buffalo County. If an ancestor was born in Buffalo County, North Dakota it is possible for him or her to have married in one county, had children in another and died in yet another without actually ever having moved from the town in which he or she was born. Most FHCs have state maps at different periods of their development and usually a copy of Ancestry’s Redbook that not only has county maps but the dates on which counties were formed and from where, also the county seat and dates from which records exist.
14. Ask FHC staff if they have patron researchers or staff who have expertise in the areas you are searching. Perhaps the best resources in any FHC are the hundreds of dedicated researchers who have for years worked away at building ancestral pedigrees. Most of them are pleased to be able to share their expertise in a country or state with a new researcher. Keep in mind that most researchers take their work very seriously and do not like to be interrupted. Approach them through the staff of the FHC who may know who is working on what — the staff are less likely to be rebuffed if they pose a question to busy researchers.
15. Familiarize yourself with the FHC book collection. Most FHCs have over the years built a book library and have an excellent collection of books usually relating to subjects and areas most frequently researched by library patrons. Familiarize yourself with the book collection since you will likely find material that will be useful to you in your research. Most libraries require that books be read on the premises but it is usually possible to photocopy a page or two that are of special interest without violating copyright laws.
Browsing by fiche reveals patterns that would be missed in doing automatic computer searches.
16. Search the IGI on fiche to better track family relationships. Since the IGI is principally an index of parish records, many of which have existed since 1550, it is often possible to trace many generations of a family in one parish. Most library patrons doing this head for the computer since this is perceived to be the fastest way of searching and the current computer records contain millions more names than the fiche record. However, when doing a multi-generation search, the IGI fiche (which are organized by area and then alphabetically by surname and chronologically by event) are much easier to analyze. You can also photocopy pages of the fiche for a nominal fee and continue your research at home.
17. Ask the FHC staff to show you how to do a filter search of the IGI. An IGI computer search for a popular surname often turns up tens of thousands of records covering a 500-year period and can be quite overwhelming. It is possible to modify the search to include only a county, state or province and a time range and this allows your search to be much more focussed and less overwhelming. It is called a filter search. If you can’t figure out how to do this, the center staff will be pleased to help.
18. When searching the IGI make sure you search both the Main file and the Addendum. Many new searchers of the IGI on computer are not aware that there is a main file and an addendum file search. The addendum file contains about 90 million recently-added names and can be accessed by selecting the F9 key on the keyboard. You will be directed to select a CD from the 17 CD addendum collection.
19. Search the British Biographical Index and Periodical Index on fiche for possible background on ancestral families. Many researchers are now writing family histories and are looking for historical or biographical material on the period in which ancestors lived. Two tremendous FHC resources are the Periodical Index and the British Biographical Index, both of which can be found on fiche in most FHCs. The Periodical Index may refer you to a public library that has the information you need and usually this can be photocopied and sent in the mail for a nominal fee.
20. Use the forms available at your FHC to help organize your data. As research progresses, organizing the data collected can become a nightmare. FHCs have a variety of forms to help you record, organize and arrange your research results. These include family group sheet form 31827, pedigree charts form 31826, census schedules for which you will need to select country and census year and research log form PFGS3082. All are available for purchase singly or in packs for a nominal amount from the staff at the center.
21. Talk with a country research specialist in Salt Lake City. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City maintains a staff of research specialists who can offer suggestions on which of the FHC records would be most likely to contain information that will help you with your research. The staff at your center will give you the phone number to call for the country specialist you need.
22. Ask about foreign language letter writing guides. Researchers doing research in foreign countries who need help writing letters to parishes or government departments for record extractions and certificates will find letter writing guides in the country research guides. The research guides also include the addresses for major government departments, central archives and are usually available for $1. French and German letter writing guides are available for 25 cents and can be requested by the form numbers 34059 and 34066 respectively.
23. If you are considering hiring a researcher, ask the FHC staff for a list of accredited professional genealogists. Many researchers often reach a point at which they require the help of a professional researcher either for a consultation or to get them over a difficult research problem. Each FHC carries a list containing the names of accredited professional researchers with the areas in which they are accredited and their specialization. There is also a very useful guide called Hiring A Professional Genealogist (form number 34548) that is available free at your center.
24. Try the FHC’s Personal Ancestral File software, and if you like it, ask how you can obtain a copy for free. Personal Ancestral File (PAF) was one of the first programs developed to help computer users organize and chart their ancestral research. It has always been available to use on the FHC computers at no cost and patrons wishing to purchase a copy could do so from the LDS Distribution Center. In 1999 the LDS Church decided to make the latest version PAF 4.0 available for free to those who wished to download it from the LDS Church website at www.familysearch.com.
25. Ask to see the Family History Publications List. There are many other publications and instructional materials that are available at your FHC. A brochure available at FHCs called Family History Publications List contains a complete list of the resources available to patrons of the center and if you ask the staff you will be allowed to examine this list to see if there are items that could help you further your research.
Family History Center staff are all volunteers. They are not people who have nothing else to do with their time but are very busy people who have chosen to share their professional expertise with patrons of the library in a very altruistic manner. There are never enough people who are prepared to share their time in this manner where the principal reward is the satisfaction that comes from unselfishly helping others. In order to optimize your research experiences, you will find it advisable to make appointments and to develop friendly relationships with staff and fellow patrons.
This article originally appeared in our May/June 2000 issue.