Back in 1999, a revolutionary website was launched. For the first time, genealogy buffs worldwide had remote access to indexes and finding aids for the world’s largest family history collection — the Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). Right away, FamilySearch.org was overwhelmed by visitors; the volume of traffic crashed the site’s servers.
Twelve years later, the LDS Church has launched a brand-new — and even more groundbreaking — FamilySearch.org. The revamped site lets you search and view nearly 1 billion digitized historical records for free, with billions more still to come. The new site also integrates resources from the old one, allowing you to tap previously separate databases all at once. But don’t let the plethora of new tools and resources on FamilySearch.org overwhelm you: Take this crash course to get the most out of the site.
Searching the storehouse
The most exciting feature of the revamped FamilySearch.org is its rapidly growing collection of genealogical records. The old version of the site already had an impressive collection consisting mostly of transcribed birth, marriage, death and census records. Now FamilySearch (the genealogy arm of the LDS church) has taken on the task of digitizing its entire microfilm collection — 2.4 million rolls containing 3.5 billion images — and posting the images online. You can access microfilms at the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City or rent them to view at a local FamilySearch Center, but most of those films aren’t indexed. The move to put FamilySearch’s huge collection of records online, with indexes, will truly revolutionize genealogy.
Here’s how FamilySearch gets those records online: First, if a person or organization claims a copyright to the records, FamilySearch needs to get permission to digitize them and publish them online. If that goes OK, FamilySearch scans the microfilm, creating a digital image of every record. One-third of the microfilms had been digitized as of October 2010. (Digital cameras are now used to acquire most new records, eliminating the scanning step.) Through FamilySearch Indexing, an online program, volunteers around the world create name indexes. FamilySearch then publishes the records online.
By the Numbers
Some record collections on FamilySearch.org have just indexes or transcriptions, while others link to record images. FamilySearch aims to make records available as soon as possible, so digitized records sometimes go online before they’re indexed — rather than searching, users must browse these by date or place. Follow these tips for using Historical Records:
- Search all records. You can search the millions of indexed records all at once from the home page. That’s a great way to find someone in a place you might not have thought to look. For example, I searched for Hartwell Robertson, who lived in South Worcester, Otsego, NY, from 1877 to 1885, and the first match is from the 1880 census, which I already had. But I’d lost track of him after 1885, so the second match was a great find: It was a record from the collection titled Minnesota Deaths and Burials, 1835-1990, showing Hartwill A. Robertson died in Minneapolis in 1894.
- Use the advanced search. To focus your Historical Records search, especially if you’re searching for a common name, click Advanced Search on the home page. Then you can specify an event (birth, marriage, residence or death) and add a spouse’s name or parents’ names.
You don’t need to fill in every box on the search screen. Even the last name is optional, and leaving it blank can be useful if you’re trying to find a female ancestor’s maiden name. A search for the marriage of Stephen Brown, a native of Stonington, Conn., and his wife, Thankful, in about 1790 turns up nothing. Thankful’s gravestone shows she died May 6, 1837, at age 72, so she was born in late 1764 or early 1765. Typing Thankful into the First Name field of the Advanced Search form (skipping the Last Name field); selecting “birth” from the Event dropdown menu and entering Stonington, New London, Connecticut in the Place field, and typing 1765 into the year field with a range of plus or minus one year, produces three likely candidates. My other research confirms that one, Thankful Main, indeed married a Stephen Brown.
You also can use the Advanced Search form to find your ancestor’s siblings. Select Parents as the relationship, fill in his father’s and mother’s names and, optionally, enter a place and range of years. A search on parents Stephen Collier and Sarah in Connecticut turns up a son John, born in 1753, and a daughter, Hannah, born in 1759, both in New Hartford.
- Use individual collections. Searching a specific record collection, rather than all the records at once, is a good way to focus on the most relevant matches. On the home page, scroll down to Browse by Location and click a world region or All Record Collections. If you select USA, Canada, and Mexico, you’ll get a list of all FamilySearch’s North American record collections, arranged alphabetically by place. On the left side of the page, filter the list further by selecting a country, time period and record category.
Another way to find databases relevant to your ancestors is to click All Record Collections, then use the Search box. Search on Civil War, and matches include Civil War Pension Index Cards, and South Carolina, Civil War Confederate Service Records, 1861-1865.
FamilySearch.org displays the number of records in each collection and the date of the last update. A camera next to the collection name indicates you can view record images. If the listing says Browse Images, that means the collection hasn’t been indexed yet, but you can browse the records. Click a record collection title to search or browse.
The Family Trees collection consists of family trees with millions of names submitted by researchers. Find an ancestor here, and you could extend your line back many generations. But unlike the Historical Records, which are derived from original records, the family trees have been compiled from sources including more-error-prone personal knowledge and family lore. Many of these trees are accurate, but others exhibit guesswork. It’s well worth mining them for clues, but always try to verify the information with original sources.
Ancestral File, one compilation of family trees in this collection, has 36 million names submitted between 1990 and 2000. It doesn’t include source citations. Names and addresses of submitters are available on the old version of FamilySearch.org (accessible for now at http://www.familysearch.org/eng), but aren’t included in the new version.
The 240-million name Pedigree Resource File, the successor to Ancestral File, is the other major compilation of family trees here. For complete details on family trees in the Pedigree Resource File, including notes and sources, use the CD and DVD versions. Search them for free at FamilySearch Centers or purchase them on the old FamilySearch.org site (follow the link to Download or Order Other Products).
The Family Trees search screen provides many options, including the person’s name; year and place of birth, marriage and death; and parents’ names. Experiment with different combinations of search terms. Remember, you don’t have to fill in every box. Here are a few strategies:
- Let uncommon names stand alone. Just search on the first and last name, such as Dubois Cornish.
- Search on a surname and a place. When you’re trying to piece together details on a family, it’s often useful to gather information on everyone with the last name in that place. You might search on an unusual last name and a state (McMorris and New York), a common name and a county (Robertson and Otsego) or a common name and a town (Grant and Hodgdon). Try separate searches for the last name with the place entered as the birthplace, death place or marriage place.
- Add a spouse or relative. William White is a common name, but searching on William White with spouse Ruth Green focuses on just one couple.
The system automatically returns matches even if the spelling and years are a little different from what you entered. The Advanced Search form lets you match terms exactly and specify a range of years.
On the results screen, click on a matching name (shown in blue) to see more information on the person’s family. You can navigate around a family tree by clicking on the names of parents, spouses and children.
Planned enhancements include the ability to display family group records and pedigrees, and upload GEDCOM files. For now, you can submit GEDCOM files through the old version of FamilySearch.org (click the Share tab).
|Tip: Click Help in the upper right-hand corner of any page on FamilySearch.org to access frequently asked questions, forums and a form for submitting your problem or question. You also can call (866) 406-1830.|
Conquering the catalog
Digitizing and indexing the FHL’s massive holdings will take years, and some items will never be available online. In the meantime, if you can’t visit the library, you can access most of its microfilm and microfiche for a small fee through FamilySearch Centers (formerly called Family History Centers). Click the link for FamilySearch Centers at the top of any FamilySearch screen for locations and hours.
Before visiting a FamilySearch Center, use the library catalog to identify films and fiches you’d like to order. You have several search options.
- Place-names: Select this option from the drop-down menu to find records and histories for places your ancestor lived. Try searches on each place, including towns, counties, states and countries. Historically, many Americans have owned land and other property they passed on to heirs, so be sure to look for land and probate records (usually recorded at the county level). County histories mention relatively few people, but often profile early settlers and prominent residents. The catalog usually lists church records, the most important family history source in Europe, by town or parish.
- Last names: Choose the Last Names search option to find family histories. Printed genealogies, common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, typically profile immigrants and trace several generations of descendants. Keep in mind that this search covers only the most prominent last names mentioned in a family history, not every name.
- Keywords: The Keywords search lets you scour entire catalog entries for a combination of search terms. If you’re researching a common surname, you can zero in on relevant matches by doing a keyword search on the name and a place.
Exploring even more
In addition to its vast databases and catalog, don’t miss these other helpful areas of FamilySearch.org:
- Learn: Need help researching a Civil War ancestor, locating Welsh probate records or reading German gothic handwriting? The FamilySearch Research Wiki works like Wikipedia, with information contributed by volunteers, but a focus on genealogy. Building on the excellent research outlines and other helps from the old website, the wiki has more than 50,000 articles. To get help with your research problem, search for a country, a state or a topic such as immigration, military records or heraldry.
If you learn best by watching a presentation, check out the research video tutorials on FamilySearch.org.
- Indexing: FamilySearch Indexing is an online system that lets for volunteers around the world index records, making them searchable on FamilySearch.org. You don’t need any special skills or lots of free time. Just register, sign in and download a batch of records. Copy names, dates and other information from the records into the corresponding spaces and then submit your index. It typically takes about an hour to finish a project, but you don’t have to do it all at once.
To make the indexes as accurate as possible, two people index every record, and an expert arbitrator resolves discrepancies in the two indexes. Indexers added 139 million names to FamilySearch.org in 2009, and 186 million in 2010.
- Labs: FamilySearch Labs gives you access to family history technologies still in the test stage. One of my favorite tools, England Jurisdictions 1851, locates every parish on a map, indicates when its church records begin and shows the jurisdictions where it lies. Community Trees are family trees for everyone who lived in a particular place and time period, such as Lewis County, Wash., between 1850 and 1900.
You’ll also get sneak peeks of Family Tech, a new set of articles with technology tips; forums for Q&A on FamilySearch products and genealogy research; and a tool for looking up standardized names, dates and places.
- What’s New: Follow this link to stay on top of new features on FamilySearch.org. A few developments in the works as of this writing: Online microfilm ordering, already available in Canada, is coming to the United States. The Brigham Young University Family History Archive, which lets you search the full text of more than 17,000 family histories and local histories, will eventually be searchable on FamilySearch.org.
“New FamilySearch,” which lets users collaborate on family trees, now open only to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is expected to available to the general public sometime in 2011 under the moniker FamilySearch Family Trees.
FamilySearch.org’s huge collection of free databases and research helps, along with a steady stream of new attractions, make it a prime genealogical resource and an online destination you’ll want to revisit regularly.
Out With the Old, in With the New
If you’re a veteran user of FamilySearch.org, you’re probably wondering what became of your favorite databases and research guides. In general, record indexes, transcriptions and digitized images are now gathered together under Historical Records, while family trees and other family information submitted by researchers reside together under Family Trees. Family history articles, classes, videos and guides are now accessible from the Learn tab. Here, see at a glance where your favorite features ended up on the new site.
|Old Site||New Location|
|Ancestral File||Family Trees|
|Historical Books||Slated to move from http://www.lib.byu.edu/fhc to http://www.familysearch.org|
|International Genealogical Index||Transcribed records published in the IGI are now separate databases in Historical Records, such as Canada Marriages, 1661-1949, and England Births and Christenings, 1538-1975. Patron-submitted records will be added to Family Trees.|
|Library (Family History Library and Family History Centers)||FamilySearch Centers|
|Library Catalog||Library Catalog|
|Pedigree Resource File||Data will be added to Family Trees|
|Research Helps (Articles and Guidance)||Learn|
|US Social Security Death Index||Historical Records|
|Vital Records Index (Mexico and Scandinavia)||Historical Records|
Finding Your Way
- Access the Research Wiki and courses.
- Find a FamilySearch Center near you.
- Volunteer to index records.
- Search user-contributed family trees.
- Search the Family History Library catalog.
- Search for records on an ancestor.
- Expand your search options.
- Browse for databases by location.
- Go to the old version of FamilySearch.org.
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From the September 2011 issue of Family Tree Magazine
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