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Why Everyone Should Be Using FamilySearch.org for Genealogy

By Sunny Jane Morton Premium

FamilySearch.org is the world’s biggest, all-free, all-genealogy website, with the most global record content. This whirlwind tour introduces its historical records, family tree data and research tips (yes, it’s all FREE!).

Nearly 15 million people are registered users of the world’s largest free online resource for genealogy: FamilySearch.org. If you’re not one of them, you’re missing out. Here’s a quick tour of 5 top features on FamilySearch.org and why you should be accessing them regularly.

FamilySearch Historical Records

At last count, FamilySearch is home to more than 4 billion historical record images from around the world. Just take a second to let that figure sink in: 4 BILLION IMAGES. Not just 4 billion estimated names in images, but 4 billion actual images, many with lots of names on each.

These aren’t just a bunch of so-so records. They are high-quality genealogical documents, painstakingly gathered over the course of several decades from repositories around the world. That’s worth breaking down into more detail:

  • High-quality genealogical records: FamilySearch prioritizes acquisition of the most genealogically-rich genealogical collections for each region. They look for the records that most reliably reveal the most names, dates, places and family relationships.
  • Painstakingly gathered: FamilySearch’s predecessor organization began microfilming the world’s historical records in 1938. That gave them a decades-long head start compared to other genealogy websites. Now they’ve got a library of 2.4 million rolls of microfilmed records, which they’ve been digitizing and publishing online as rapidly as possible. And that doesn’t even include the 300 camera crews currently capturing digital record images.
  • Repositories around the world: As a nonprofit organization with truly global scope, FamilySearch has imaged records from more than 200 countries. They don’t have “target markets” that slant their priorities toward the needs of paying customers because there are no paying customers. In fact, FamilySearch actively seeks out records for locations that don’t already have good online coverage on other websites. That’s why you’ll find so many records uniquely on FamilySearch for places in Central and South America, Africa, Asia and elsewhere. (They’ve still got you covered for the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe.)

    Record images are going online at FamilySearch so quickly that many are not searchable by name yet. But about 7.5 billion names are searchable. Follow these tips to search for your ancestors’ names on FamilySearch.org. Explore some FamilySearch record highlights we’ve talked about, such as World War I records and these highlights from around the globe.

The FamilySearch Wiki

Wikipedia for genealogy?! Yes! The FamilySearch Wiki hosts nearly 100,000 articles to get you started (or help you break through a brick wall) with your current research question. Like Wikipedia, the FamilySearch Wiki is crowd-sourced, so its expertise may be uneven and some pages may be outdated. It’s still a go-to resource when it’s time to learn something new, especially about a really specific topic.

For example, the FamilySearch Wiki has learning pages for countries around the world, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Most regions have focused articles on specific states/provinces, counties and even cities. Find articles on specific record types, such as U.S. probate records or Swedish household examination rolls. Need help reading Swedish (or other languages) or understanding genealogy terminology or abbreviations? There’s probably a word list you can use.

The following screen shot shows you a typical layout of a FamilySearch Wiki page. See how it points you to related content you might want?

A related how-to FamilySearch resource is more interactive: the FamilySearch Communities. These are social hubs for people with common interests (think German research) to exchange ideas or ask questions. Some questions may be fielded by the experts at the venerable Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.

FamilySearch Catalog

Speaking of the Family History Library, that research mecca is the bricks-and-mortar partner of the FamilySearch website. As a FamilySearch.org user, you’ll want to know this, even if you don’t plan to visit the Family History Library anytime soon.

That’s because the Catalog of the entire Family History Library is searchable on FamilySearch.org. Maybe you’d like to find an old atlas, the membership records of a specific church or online deed indexes for your ancestor’s county. Search the Catalog by place to explore what resources are available for your locale of interest. If an item has been digitized at FamilySearch, the Catalog likely points to it (though updates are still ongoing). Even if the resource isn’t available online, you can click from that item’s entry to see what other libraries may have a copy.

The FamilySearch Digital Library

A lesser-known portal at FamilySearch is its Digital Library, which recently got a stylin’ facelift. In addition to the shelves of the Family History Library, the Digital Library offers titles made available by the Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center, Midwest Genealogy Center, The Ontario Genealogical Society and other major public and university libraries. Last time we checked, the book count was nearing half a million titles.

The Digital Library is a good place to keyword-search ancestral names, locations and the names of schools, churches, businesses and other organizations connected with which your family. You may find local histories, family histories, articles from periodicals and more.

Here’s a tip: You can search the collections of an individual contributing repository. So if your family lived in Alabama or Texas, for example, you might try running a focused search in materials from the Birmingham Public Library or the Dallas or Houston Public Libraries. Read more tips for exploring the FamilySearch Digital Library.

FamilySearch Family Tree(s)

Over the past few years, FamilySearch has been inviting the world to contribute to what’s become the biggest community-based family tree around. So far, over 5 million people have participated. Whether you contribute or not, you can still learn from this massive tree.

First, you’ll need to understand the community-based tree model. Like Geni.com and WikiTree, the FamilySearch tree is a single, public tree. The idea is to promote full collaboration instead of populating the site with millions of individual trees that duplicate effort (but maintain control and privacy). As you can see from this screenshot of the top of a personal profile, there are dedicated spots to collaborate and contribute personal memories.

There are drawbacks to this approach, such as when less-knowledgeable researchers change well-supported data. But there are powerful upsides, too. Not least, it’s easy for anyone to search the FamilySearch Tree for specific ancestors to see what others have already discovered about them. Ideally, among the 1.2 billion personal profiles, you’ll find only one profile of any given ancestor, with all user-contributed data neatly organized within: life events, relationships, sources, record images, photos, memories. In reality, there’s some duplication, but far less than you’ll find at sites with individual trees. And all data about deceased individuals is public to anyone with a free FamilySearch guest account.

FamilySearch Product Manager Ron Tanner talks about why you might want to participate in the Tree:

Individual family trees are still valuable, and many are accessible on another part of the site. The Genealogies portal allows users to upload preservation copies of their personal family trees, which remain intact. (Scroll to the bottom of the page to upload your tree file. You can delete or replace it anytime.) Users can also search among millions of names in these trees for their ancestors’ names, to see what others have learned about them. When you open a search result, you’ll see the name shown within the context of that tree.

Hear more about the Genealogies portal from FamilySearch’s Ron Tanner:

What’s the Catch?

When I say, “Everything on FamilySearch is free,” you’re probably waiting for caveats and limitations. Everything really is free. You will never be asked for credit card information or even to make a donation.

FamilySearch is funded by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has a strong religious commitment to families. But you don’t have to be a church member to use the site. And creating a free user account will not prompt the Church to send you religious materials (unless you create a Church member account.)

In fact, the only significant caveat is that you do need to create a free FamilySearch user account to maximize access. You can search the record images and Catalog without logging in. But you’ll need that user account to contribute to the Family Tree (anyone can search it). Some collections have stipulations by the records owners that only registered users may view the records on the site.

For a small minority of collections, you actually have to go to the Family History Library or one of its satellite libraries near you to view records, like you would a reference copy of an encyclopedia at your local public library. But that’s the end of the fine print. The site really is free—and everyone should be using it.

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