A Misunderstood and Underutilized Resource: Using FamilySearch
By Tami Osmer Glatz (World Vital Records)
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka LDS Church, or the Mormons) sponsors several valuable genealogical resources including the Salt Lake City Family History Library, hundreds of smaller "satellite" libraries called Family History Centers, as well as their free online resources which include the Family Search pilot and wiki websites, in addition to the well-known www.FamilySearch.org genealogy website.
I'd like to take this opportunity to clarify some of the questions I hear people ask about the FamilySearch website. Is it just a 'names' database? Where do the records come from? Can I trust the information? How can it help my genealogical research?
In the past few years, the website FamilySearch has undergone major changes. Some features have remained the same, but others have been added that make it one of the most valuable free genealogy websites available today. With the addition of digitized books and original documents, it is definitely much, much more than just a 'names' database.
FamilySearch offers several valuable resources right on the main web page. Under the title "Free PAF Family History Software", you can download a free genealogy program for your computer. Personal Ancestral File (PAF) is a fairly simple, user-friendly program that is a great place to begin organizing your names and research data. Under the "News & Events" heading on this main page you can read the latest news about what the folks at FamilySearch are up to, and what new records they are adding to the site.
Also from this main "home" page, as with previous versions of the website, you can "Search Records for Your Ancestors". By entering an ancestor's name in the search boxes, a search will sift through the billions of names in the IGI (a database comprised of both personal submissions and extracted names from vital records), Ancestral File and Pedigree Resource File (both databases of user submitted names); transcribed records of the 1880 US Census, the 1881 British Isles & 1881 Canadian Censuses; the US Social Security Death Index; and the Vital Records Index (transcribed vital records from Mexico and Scandinavia only).
If you find your family in this database be sure to scroll down towards the bottom of each individual's page to see if the source of the information is recorded. As with any user-submitted records, there is always the possibility of error and incorrect data. If the source says extraction, it means that the person that entered the information was looking at the original record when they extracted the names and dates. If you want to be sure, you can usually locate that original record yourself (in the Library Catalog) and verify the information on your own. But whatever the source, you may at least get an idea of what direction to take your own research in order to prove or disprove these pedigrees. In my opinion, however, this "Search" feature definitely takes a back seat to most of the newer additions to FamilySearch.org, which now include many original records, and digitized images.
The tabs that run across near the top of the webpage in blue are your gateway to these new and valuable genealogical records. It's a great idea to spend a few minutes and click through all of the options they offer, but I will summarize what is available here.
The "Search Records" tab contains my favorite resources on the website. This tab enables a drop down menu, and by then choosing "Record Search Pilot", you can search through millions of newly indexed records from the Family Search Indexing program, or browse through some that are not completely indexed yet. Volunteers around the world are participating in this project, indexing vital records microfilm from the Family History Library collection. Many of the search results include access to the actual original images associated with the record -- birth, death or marriage certificates, census images or church records from the US and around the world -- all made available to you for free. This incredible resource is continually being updated and added to, so check back from time to time for the latest additions. Or better yet, sign up under the "Index Records" tab at FamilySearch.org and volunteer yourself!
From the "Record Search Pilot" screen, you can enter a name and dates into the search boxes to search from all of the records currently available. If you would rather do a more specific search, you may click on the map of the country you are interested in, and the next screen will bring up a list of all of the currently available records for that country. A red asterisk next to a record indicates that it is a new addition. Some records will indicate that they are not complete, or that images are not available. If you find a set of records that interest you, you can click on it and search only within those records. I think I lost an entire night's sleep when I discovered that Ohio Death Certificates were available!
Another great option under the "Search Records" tab is "Historical Books". This takes you directly to the Family History Archives of the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University. By typing in a surname, author, title or keyword, you can browse or search through thousands of full-text digitized books -- local & family histories, genealogies and journals -- from several major collections across the US. Lately it seems that every time I go to this site, another thousand resources have been added, so check back from time to time.
Back along the main bar of tabs, the "Share" tab is worth mentioning. From this tab, after clicking the only option, "Share My Records", you will be taken to a screen that requires you to sign in. Registering is completely free, and does not commit you to anything. You will also never be contacted by the church, nor receive e-mails from signing up here either. However, once you are signed in, you may upload a .gedcom file of your family ancestry, which will be permanently stored in the Granite Mountain Records Vault near Salt Lake City, and more than likely made available for others to peruse by being added to the Pedigree Resource File. Once submitted, you cannot make changes to this file, so it is best if you first check through your genealogy file for any obvious errors. When you make the .gedcom from your genealogy program, it is also a good idea to exclude living individuals as well as your notes (unless you are absolutely sure you want to share them), but be sure to include your sources.
Under the tab titled "Research Helps" you will find hundreds of blank forms, maps, charts, articles and research guides for every state in the US and every country in the world (or at least many of them)! These guides include records availability, repository information and in the case of foreign research, often language help and word guides. They will give you direction and guidance on how to proceed with your research in any given location, and are a great place to start when you begin any research project.
The "Library" tab not only has information about the Salt Lake City Family History Library, which is the largest genealogical library in the world, but this tab also includes free online research classes under "Education". Classes currently include Research in England, Germany, Italy, Hispanic (in Spanish), Russia and US.
One of the best features under the Library tab is the access to the Family History Library Catalog. (You can also access the Library Catalog from under the "Search Records" tab, but to me, it is more intuitive to find the Library Catalog, under the "Library" tab.) From "Library Catalog" you can search the library's collection of 2.4 million rolls of microfilmed genealogical records, 727,000 microfiche, and over 350,000 books.
The microfilm & microfiche collection are films of a variety of original documents, including books and diaries, handwritten family histories, as well as birth, death and marriage registers and deed books from courthouses and other repositories around the United States. Many of the biographies and local histories in the microfilm collection have already been digitized, and if you are lucky, when you locate a film that interests you, the Film Notes will include the phrase (in red) "To view a digital version of this item click here" which will redirect you to the Family History Archives site, and you can have instant access to the film online!
The microfilm and microfiche collection also includes original documents from many foreign countries, including church parish registers, civil registrations and other valuable documents. I've used these microfilms to trace my own family through parish registers from tiny churches in England (some handwritten in Latin) going back to the 1500s. Absolutely amazing!
The indexing program is working to put these filmed images online, but until the project is complete, you may search the catalog to determine which films or fiche you may want to rent from your local Family History Center or public library with FHL privileges. There is a small rental fee of about $5.50 per film or .15 per fiche. You can locate your nearest FHC under the "Library" tab by going to "Family History Centers" and typing in your country, state, county and city. A list of centers nearest you will appear, along with their telephone number and hours of operation. It is highly recommended that you phone ahead to verify the hours, since all Family History Centers are volunteer staffed and sometimes the hours change.
As you can see, the FamilySearch.org website is definitely more than just a "names" database. The FamilySearch.org website can be an invaluable resource for your genealogical research, by helping you locate and view original documents relating to your ancestors. Spend some time there today yourself! World Vital Records