Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Monday, March 30, 2015

Look Before You Search -- Part Two -- Finding out what is there

As I pointed out in the first post in this series, each of the partner database programs has a way to view the contents of their collections of records. In the case of, it is important to realize that there is a catalog containing a listing of nearly everything in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah and other collections in Family History Centers around the world. This is the Catalog. There may be some very recently acquired records that have yet to be cataloged, but the intent of the catalog is to contain all of the records available.

Since I started this series, I finished teaching a class on this same subject at the Brigham Young University Family History Library and a video of the class was uploaded to the BYU Family History Library YouTube Channel. The video is called, "A Closer Look at FamilySearch Partner Sites." Some of the information in this series is covered in the video.

Learning how to use a library catalog is a skill that can acquired only through practice.  Every library catalog has it own unique character. Cataloging is a slow and meticulous process. With the vast resources of the Internet, we may get the impression that everything that needs to be known is available on the network. This is true for trivial information. It is not true for those who frequently search online. Serious research into family history will soon convince you that there is still a long way to go before all of the world's information is online. At this point, it is important to ask whether you know what is in the libraries closest to you? I will be talking about the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, but what about your local and state libraries? Do you know whether or not they have any information about your family? What about the 4600 plus Family History Centers worldwide?

This brings up a fundamental rule of libraries and online websites, it does not matter how large their collections are if they do not have what you are searching for. So, before you get wrapped up in searching through the piles both physical and virtual, you might want to know if there is a chance what you are searching for is actually there. You might also want to know if that local library I mentioned has what you are looking for. I have found some pretty unique references in some very small local libraries.

Catalogs are both finding aids and directories. This means that they both teach you how and where to find your needed information and also direct you to where it can be found. This distinction is very important, especially if you are accustomed to think of library catalogs only as directories. Let me demonstrate a sample search from the Catalog and show what I mean.

Here is a screenshot of the Catalog's search page.

There are various ways to search the catalog. You can search by place, surname, title, author, subject or keywords. Even though there are these different methods of searching, I would suggest that the one I use nearly all of the time is to begin a search by place. The reason for this is that family history related records are generally organized by place and then by topic. Searching for a surname or other specific type of information is this, or any other, extensive catalog is usually counterproductive.

The reason for this statement is simple. Much of the information in the Family History Library and elsewhere in the Family History Center organization is not indexed by surname, title or author. For example, there are millions of rolls of microfilm cataloged. Relatively few of these rolls have been indexed for every name contained on the records. The Catalog will assist you in finding the roll, but not the individual names found in the record. Even indexing is not a total solution to this problem. Indexing rarely includes every single name entry in every document indexed.

If I am trying to find a specific book or record, I may use one of the other methods of searching. But usually, in doing family history research, I am looking for information about a specific person or family and do not know about a specific book or other record. In this regard, many researchers do a superficial search of a library catalog and conclude that the library (or other entity) does not have any information about their ancestors. In the case of a large reference library, such as the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah and the FamilySearch system of Family History Centers, this conclusion is generally false. I have found information in the library about my family after years of searching that was sitting in the Family History Library all the time. My searching involved asking the same question over and over again in different ways until I found what I was looking for.

Now back to the catalog. Effective searching for family history related records involves knowing exactly where an event in your ancestor's life occurred. I mean the geographic location with some reasonable degree of specificity. You then search through the catalog, entry by entry, for material that corresponds to your ancestor's location at the time period when the record may have been created.

Hypothetically, let's suppose I am looking for a record of an ancestor that lived in Joseph City, Arizona in 1890. My very first level of searching does not involve the Catalog at all. It involves verifying the place at the time of the event. Was there a town named Joseph City in 1890 in Arizona? The answer is simple. The town was previously called St. Joseph and the name was changed to Joseph City in the 1920s. Now, it you don't just happen to know that type of fact, you had better spend some time looking at the history of the locations where you propose to search.

Now I start my search. Do I go directly to Joseph City or whatever in the Catalog? No. I start by looking at every level of jurisdiction where records may have been kept. In this case, I start with the United States. Here is the screenshot of the records.

The idea here is that there are records that could contain information about my ancestor living in Arizona in the 1890s that are only available and are maintained at the national level. I should examine the entire list of record categories and search any record that appears to cover the same time period I am searching. I cannot assume that the Federal Government did not create and/or maintain a record that involved my ancestor.

If I click on the link that gives me places within the U.S. then I will see a list of states. This also works with the countries of the world. The results is a list of categories of state records (or country subdivision records) available. Each of these that apply to my ancestor's time and place must also be searched. The next link is to counties and then, if available, to cities or towns. At each level, there are unique records that may contain more information about your ancestors.

Looking at the list of record types may also suggest other records you may wish to search on websites besides By using the Catalog in this way, you will be able to see immediately, whether or not a certain type of record or particular record is in the Family History Library or elsewhere in the system.

See the first post in this series here:

No comments:

Post a Comment