Two of the large online websites, FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com, have something in common; large detailed catalogs. Because of the detailed nature of the catalogs, their utility goes far beyond acting as mere finding aids. On both websites, the catalogs are valuable assets in and of themselves. It is interesting that many of the websites’ users are either entirely unaware of the catalogs or use them only in a very superficial way. By failing to understand or by ignoring the catalogs’ full value, genealogical researchers end up using the websites far below their full potential.
Both of the websites’ catalogs are coupled with powerful analytical tools that assist the researcher in capturing more information from the catalogs than would be available were they just a simple listing of the contents of the websites. To understand the value of the catalogs, the researcher needs to focus not just on the content but the organization and view the entries as portals to finding additional information that would otherwise be obscure and undetectable.
At this point, users of the FamilySearch.org website are probably thinking about the Research Wiki. Haven’t I taught and maintained that the Research Wiki is the most valuable online genealogical resource on the Internet? Yes, I firmly believe that to be true. But I find myself using the FamilySearch Catalog more than I do the Research Wiki. Why is that the case? The answer to this question is the essence of the value of the catalogs. To answer the question, I had to think long and hard about the differences between the two resources.
The Research Wiki is the library, while the catalog is just that; the catalog. They are both valuable tools but have different levels of use.
At a very basic level, the catalogs tell the user what is in the websites’ collections. The FamilySearch Catalog has listings of nearly all of the assets in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah as well as dozens of other FamilySearch Libraries and Family History Centers around the world. The Card Catalog on the Ancestry.com website, lists all of the digital collections available on the website. In this sense, both catalogs provide a shortcut to determining if a certain document or source is available and searchable.
But that is just the beginning. Both catalogs can be filtered or searched to define related entries. For example, you could have both catalogs filtered to show only the documents in a particular country or division of that country. So, for example, I could very quickly determine if either FamilySearch or Ancestry.com had a copy of a certain parish register from England. But because the FamilySearch Catalog contains listings for items that may only be available in another, more remote location, it is not a completely reliable finding aid used in that fashion. The entries in the FamilySearch Catalog may lead you to items that are only available in a particular Family History Center half way around the world.
But the increased usefulness of the entries comes from the fact that the source document may exist at all. For example, let’s suppose I was looking for documents from a certain parish in England. The Research Wiki would tell me if such a document existed but might not tell me if the document was immediately available online depending on how complete the entries were for that location. On the other hand, the Catalog would tell me immediately not only if the item existed but also whether it was readily available in digital format or on microfilm. If I needed to find out more information about the particular documents that might be available from that parish, I could browse through the list of documents in the Catalog. It is important to understand that the FamilySearch Catalog includes both digitized and undigitized items, while the Ancestry.com catalog includes that websites digital and available collections depending on the user’s level of subscription. If I am actively doing research, I want to know if a resource is immediately available and both catalogs provide me with that information.
Thus, one main use of the Catalogs is to act as reference lists suggesting the types of documents that might be helpful in doing research on any subject or in any location. For example, I may be vaguely aware of “parish registers” but when I go to the catalogs and search, I can find and usually immediately see an example of that type of document. So one of the differences between the Research Wiki and the Catalogs is similar to the difference between using a table of contents or an index and having the entire book.
Obviously neither a wiki nor a catalog provides information about whether or not the resources listed contain the specific information you are seeking. But by using the catalogs extensively, you begin to learn the breadth of the types of information and resources that are available. If you need more information about a particular type of record, then you can use the Research Wiki to provide the more in depth explanations that might be helpful.
As I noted above, the FamilySearch Catalog contains listings from many different library locations. There are drop-down menus to show if certain items are located in more than one library. For example, I can tell if a microfilm roll is in the Brigham Young University Family History Library. There is one limitation with the catalog and that is that it has to be updated by people working on adding the entries. For this reason, it is never completely accurate.
Now, let’s suppose that I find a resource I am interested in reviewing and let’s further suppose that the item is in the Salt Lake Family History Library. In every such case, I automatically use the name of the item to do further online Google searches. It happens that the same item may be available online from some other website. The results of the search also give me addition suggested, related items to search. In this case, the catalog becomes a springboard to additional research on any given subject.
Unfortunately, the utility of the Catalogs is only completely evident with practice and experience. None of the additional benefits of using a catalog are obvious. I suggest that when starting research on either FamilySearch.org or Ancestry.com, you need to become very well acquainted with their extensive catalogs.