Ten Frequently Asked Questions
at Family History Centers
Ron Wild answers the questions most commonly asked of volunteers
at Family History Centers.
SINCE THE SPRING 1999 launch of the LDS Church's FamilySearch website (www.familysearch.com), attendance at Family History Centers seems to have increased dramatically. We thought it would be interesting to talk with some of the volunteer staff at FHCs and with the main Family History Library in Salt Lake City to ask them the questions that library patrons most frequently ask.
No matter where the FHC, the questions reflected the ethnicity of the patrons ancestors. Given the ethnic diversity of both the US and Canada, FHC staff are just as likely to be asked about German ancestral resources in Tampa, Florida as they are in Toronto, Ontario. This reflected a rather better knowledge by library patrons of the resources available from FHCs than we expected. It appears to have come about by researchers having visited the LDS Church FamilySearch website and becoming aware that almost the entire resources of the Salt Lake Family History Library are available to patrons of the local FHC.
An ever-increasing number of databases and publications are now available in electronic
form, usually on CD-ROM. Some resources, such as FamilySearch, are now online as well.
I've just started, how do I go about finding my great grandparents?
This was by far the most common question asked at all centers. Most serious researchers would find this to be a fairly unsophisticated question but with over 120 million Americans professing an interest in searching for family roots, it is not surprising that many beginners end up at their local FHC wanting to know how to get started. The most obvious answer is, "Have you talked to your parents?" Most parents have personal memories of their grandparents and can certainly provide enough information to allow documentation to be obtained. Given that family history research is predominantly an older adult vocation, frequently parents will have passed on, but perhaps a sibling is still alive. My parents have died, but my father's sister is still alive and I recently dispatched my niece Jane Wild to visit my aunt Irene in England to gather all the memories and personal mementos that she alone has. Family members are a powerful information resource and there is every likelihood that one of your extended family members will have the information that you need.
Since there are many other research avenues that can be traveled it is useful to have the patron print out the information they have on a Family Group Sheet. This will provide the basic information that will determine next steps. These could be to obtain parish records, vital or civil records, but should first include a search of compiled databases. Major ones include the IGI or the many Internet databases including the increasingly important pedigree linked databases such as the LDS Church Ancestral File, RootsWeb World Connect, MyTrees Plus, MyFamily, World FamilyTree and many others.
How can I obtain a copy of an ancestor's birth or marriage certificate?
This is a difficult question to answer, since there is no universal way in which these records were kept and information available varies not only from state to state but also from country to country. The dates from which vital records were kept also vary from place to place, and, to complicate matters even further, the information on civil and vital records is not uniform. In Scotland, both parents' names are shown on marriage certificates for bride and groom. In England, only the father's names are shown. In some states, only the date and place in which the marriage took place is shown.
In view of all of the aforementioned it is important to determine why the certificate is required. If for estate purposes, then a certificate is the authentic proof that must be provided. If for ancestral research purposes, then perhaps there is a more convenient way to obtain the information since there is usually a fee for obtaining certificates that can be as high as $30-$50. Internet databases, census and parish records, newspaper indexes and Social Security Death Index and Military Records are some of the alternative sources that could lead to the birth or marriage information required. Most FHCs have reference material that will allow researchers to determine whether a birth or marriage certificate is available at all and how to go about obtaining a copy when available. There are also Internet sites that contain this information and provide the additional service of obtaining a copy of the certificate for you for a set fee. Visit an Internet search engine and do a search for the information that you require, such as "New York Marriage Records", "England Birth Records", "Ontario Canada Death Records", etc. An alternative source for this type of information are the FHL research desks and a call to the appropriate international desk will put you in touch with a specialist who will tell you which of the millions of FHL resources contain the information you need. These research desks are divided into several areas of the world and can be called at the following telephone numbers:
Latin America 801-240-1738
How can I know which census film to search for an ancestral family?
Unless the exact place of residence was known in the month and year in which a census was taken this proves to be an extremely difficult question to answer with any precision. The very time at which national censuses started to be taken was also the time at which the great immigrations and migrations began. For the 120 years from 1800-1920, millions of families re-located every few years making it very difficult to pinpoint an individual or a family with any precision. Since censuses were invariably enumerated on a parish or district basis, national searches are impractical. Fortunately more and more censuses are being indexed either on a local or a state basis or, in the case of the 1881 British census, on a national basis. Again an Internet search to see if a census index is available for the area and census year in which you are interested can be very fruitful.
Heritage Quest's The Census Book by William Dollarhide is an excellent resource for Federal census facts and indexes and also details the many state censuses available, most of which were completed around the mid-point in a decade and provide a resource for many states between the Federal census years. Several commercial websites such as Genealogy.com, Ancestry.com and HeritageQuest.com have collections of census index CDs available for purchase and several volunteer web sites such as RootsWeb.com, USGenWeb.com and GenUK.com contain data on thousands of local census indexing projects that grow in size and scope week by week. A search of your local FHC Library Catalog can also be very useful since films of indexed census data are available for loan for thousands of town, county, state and provincial locations.
Browsing by fiche reveals patterns that would be missed in doing automatic computer searches.
How can I find out which ship my ancestors arrived on?
In actuality, most FHC patrons who ask this question don't really want the name of the ship on which their ancestors arrived. I call it the Mayflower syndrome since deep in the American psyche is the knowledge of the prestige attached to being descended from these pilgrim ancestors and perhaps the desire to be able to say, "My ancestors arrived on the Mayflower."
The question that is really being asked is: "When did my ancestors arrive in North America and from where?" Passenger ship lists are notoriously hard to search and vastly incomplete but some progress is being made and many remarkable finds have been made. Lists cannot be searched by ship name even if you knew the name of the ship. Add to this the fact that a busy passenger liner in the 1900s when a crossing from Europe took two weeks or less, may make several trips each year and as many as 100 in a decade. Unless you know the date on which an ancestor emigrated with some precision, it is unlikely that you would find the correct passenger list.
Many passenger ship indexes have been started and searches on the Internet under "passenger lists" will turn up hundreds as will a search of the FHC Library Catalog. A passenger list CD containing over two million names is available for purchase from Genealogy.com. The Source by Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking contains a section that deals exhaustively with searching for immigrant ancestors and includes a particularly good section on passenger ship lists. Many books from Genealogical Publishing deal with early passenger lists and a list of these titles can be had on their website at GenealogyBookShop.com. However, usually the best source for arrival dates and country of origin are censuses, social security applications and naturalization records although the Ellis Island Index soon to be available from the LDS Church will be an invaluable index for New York arrivals.
What kinds of records do you have at the Family History Center?
Every FHC has its own unique collection of records, usually pertaining to the interests of the patrons in the region where the FHC is located. This can include a unique collection of films, fiche, maps, books and increasingly CD collections. The heart of every FHC is the FamilySearch software that is loaded on all FHC computers and includes the following programs of not only local but often national and international interest: The International Genealogical Index (IGI), Ancestral File, US Social Security Death Index, Scottish Church Records, Library Catalog, Personal Ancestral File and TempleReady.
All FHCs have loan access to virtually the entire collection of the Family History Library and this collection can be accessed and researched on the Library Catalog CD that is part of the FamilySearch software package at your local center or online (www.familysearch.com). The only items that cannot be loaned are books and these are identified as such on the Library Catalog CD but even here at present more than half of the FHL book collection has been microfilmed. Books that have not been microfilmed and that are not excluded by reason of copyright will be microfilmed on request and on payment of a modest rental fee to your local FHC.
Can I submit my information for inclusion on the next IGI update?
Yes, you can. All FHC computers have a software program called TempleReady that will allow you to prepare your information to the standards required for submittal to this international index. The IGI is a record of over 600 million names of the temple work that LDS Church members have done for their ancestors. Latter-day Saints believe that through sacred ordinances loved ones can be bound together in family units for eternity. Church members believe these important temple blessings are available not only to those who are now living, but vicariously to those who have died, most of whom were not members of the LDS Church. The temple work for those names submitted is completed by volunteer temple workers although traditionally Church members complete the work for their own ancestors but this is not rigidly followed since temple ordinances take up to five hours to complete for each name submitted. Most FHCs have a booklet available called A Member's Guide to Temple and Family History Work that explains this program in some detail and a copy of this can be obtained on request.
What is the best software to store, organize and print out pedigree and descendant charts for my ancestors?
This is an extremely difficult question to answer fairly since very few individuals have had experience with more than one or two software packages. Add to this the fact that there are at least a dozen major software packages, each with strengths and weaknesses depending on the particular needs of the researcher. Some researchers want a package that will allow them to make voluminous notes about their ancestral finds and cross reference them with timelines, chronological and geographical arrangements. They then want to print this data out in linked pedigree formats in individual boxes with nice borders suitable for framing. All of these features and more, including the ability to add black and white and color photographs and photographic family trees, are available. Increasingly, researchers want to send copies of their family trees to friends, relatives and online databases all of which may have different technical requirements that may or may not be compatible with your software package. Compatibility is becoming increasingly important and of course enterprising software developers have recognized this need and developed software that will meet the most discriminating of transfer protocols.
Most FHC staff have their favorites but they also have a bias, not an unfair bias, but one that allows patrons to get started right away, at no cost. PAF (Personal Ancestral File) is an LDS-Church-developed system that is loaded on FHC computers and is also available for free download online (from www.familysearch.com).
As researchers develop more sophisticated requirements, they may choose to purchase one of the many excellent software packages. Many companies offer a demonstration version of their software that will allow an evaluation of features that may be of particular importance to individual researchers. It is important to ensure that all software is GEDCOM (Genealogical Data Communication) compatible so that data is transferable and does not need to be entered again.
How dependable is the information in Ancestral File and how can I check the source data?
This question can be extended to cover ancestral data in any of the Internet databases whether freely available or only available to member subscribers. None of the ancestral data submitted to the 35-million-name linked pedigree database Ancestral File is checked for completeness or accuracy since the church expects submitters to have verified the accuracy of the information before submitting ancestral data for inclusion. This is also true of Internet databases and researchers should therefore treat this information as secondary source information that needs to be verified. Ancestral File does provide the name of data submitters who, as a condition of being included on the database, have agreed that they may be contacted. This is also true of many of the Internet databases and in some instances it is not unusual to find a dozen or more contributors for a single ancestral name. These contributors represent a dynamic source of information and not only may they be able to provide information on collateral lines but they may be in possession of primary source information that they can share with a researcher to help authenticate individuals and links. Ancestral File is part of the FamilySearch software loaded on FHC computers and is also searchable on the Internet at the LDS Church web site.
Why can't I keep this film on permanent loan at the FHC?
A frequent source of irritation to FHC patrons is the difficulty encountered in obtaining enough time on film readers to search a film during the three-week rental period. This is particularly frustrating when the film research turns up collateral lines of ancestors who also need to be searched.
With over 3,600 FHCs currently in operation around the world, the Salt Lake City-based Family History Library has had to put in place a very firm policy on the operation of its FHCs. Each center is allowed a certain number of film readers and a certain amount of storage space for permanent and loaned films. An average-sized North American FHC is allowed four film readers and two film storage cabinets and these restrictions alone determine to a large degree how many permanent loan films can be kept. There is some flexibility in this arrangement but all equipment in excess of that allowed must be paid for locally. Since most FHCs are physically planned and laid out to accommodate the permitted amount of storage and film reading equipment then often there is simply not enough reading or storage space to accommodate an increase. Most FHCs will allow an extension of a film rental for an additional three-week period on payment of an additional rental fee but they are reluctant to extend beyond this period since the film then automatically becomes a permanent loan film and is added to the FHC inventory. Local inventories of films are a matter of record and it is not unusual for FHC Directors to be asked to reduce their film inventories on an annual basis or for equipment beyond that permitted to be re-directed to new FHCs. The way most FHCs handle this common situation is to extend opening hours to allow more film research time and to advise patrons not to order more than one or two films at a time so that film reader booking pressures can be avoided.
A family tradition involves our descent from _____, how can I prove this connection?
It is difficult to be involved in the genealogical community in any capacity without hearing distinguished ancestor stories. It seems that almost everyone has a distinguished, often royal, ancestor who is somehow rumored to be connected to a distant but often vague branch of the family. Countless hours of research are spent searching for these elusive connections often at the expense of more achievable goals.
Even more distressing is the undeniable underworld of genealogy catering to this desire to be connected to "important" ancestors. Gustave Anjou, active in the first quarter of the 20th century, is known to have forged hundreds of distinguished pedigrees that are estimated to have tainted the lineages of over two thousand surnames. Anjou was just one of several known forgers and unfortunately the family pedigrees that these unscrupulous individuals created have become part of the vast collection of ancestral records so readily available on the Internet today. It is difficult to estimate the number of researchers that are being misled by these spurious ancestries. It is well established that hundreds of thousands of North Americans are genuinely descended from the royal families of Europe but it is most important that these ancestral links be carefully established with primary source material from several sources if possible. This is the only way in which you can have confidence in your research and if this arduous path does indeed lead to distinguished ancestors then you can be well pleased with your efforts. And if it doesn't, then you can delight in those ancestors you have found and join the happy majority of researchers.
Most FHCs are hives of genealogical activity and while the ability to access the largest collection of genealogical records in the world is a tremendous attraction, there are other valuable resources. Perhaps the most important of these is the ability to ask the kinds of questions covered in this article and obtain the guidance and advice of active researchers with knowledge and experience in the area of research in which you need help. A word of caution in this respect gained from 10 years of FHC experience: most knowledgeable researchers value their active research time very highly and are not always willing to be interrupted during a research session. Direct your questions to the FHC consultant in charge since they are not only likely to have knowledge of the individuals who can help but their interruption will more likely be tolerated and result in meaningful assistance.
This article originally appeared in our November/December 2000 issue.