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

Monday, January 1, 2018

Working With the FamilySearch Iceberg

Ice has 90% of water's density so 90% of an iceberg (or an ice cube) will be underwater and not visible from the surface. Interestingly, these percentages approximately apply to the number of records on the website. For those of you out there that are caught up in the "search by name" syndrome, you are only searching (or seeing about 10%) of the records that are available on the website.

What does this mean in numbers? Well, it really means that the numbers of digital images, searchable names are so vast that they defy our individual ability to comprehend. For example, there are presently about 5.84 billion searchable names in the Historical Records on the website. A billion is a one followed by nine zeros.


Here is a short video showing a graphic representation of 1 billion. Remember, there are over 5 billion names in the database on the website.

How much is 1 billion dollars in 1 dollar bills

In order to search through all of these records with a computer program, it is necessary to convert the information in the records into some searchable format, i.e. text files. Nearly all the records on the website are images in either microfilm or digital format. For example, here is a reference to a record in the Catalog that is only available on a physical roll of microfilm:

The little icon of a spool of microfilm on the right-hand side of the image indicates that this particular record has not yet been digitized so the only way to view this record is at one of the Family History Centers or Libraries that have a physical copy of the microfilm. Here is the list of available locations for this particular record.

If this particular record has information about your ancestors or relatives, the only way you can find out is by physically examining the record with a microfilm reader in one of the Libraries or Centers listed. This is one reason why the iceberg analogy works in describing the records that are available as opposed to those that are searchable online from your home. As an additional point of interest, when I searched online for this particular book in, the largest book catalog in the world, it turns out that the only copy of this particular book is in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. 

This gives us all something else to think about. How many unique records are there that exist in only one copy in one record repository? 

Now, we could wait until this particular microfilm is digitized or we could go to one of the places that has a microfilm copy and search through that copy page by page. Either way, a name search on the website will not tell us whether or not our ancestor or relative is mentioned in this book. 

Now back to the iceberg analogy. Literally, only about 10% of the records available from FamilySearch are searchable by name online. What about the digitized records? Well, if the water book above had been digitized and made available on the website, we would not have to travel to Salt Lake City or some other place to see a copy. That makes our lives much easier as genealogists. Also, keep in mind that we need to search online generally for any one of the items in the Catalog to see if some other entity has the item digitized online. That is one of the main benefits of having the FamilySearch Partner Programs. 

But let's look at another entry from the website.

Now, let's see if we can search this huge record by the names of our ancestors.

Nope, this record is not indexed. Indexing is the process where we look at the images and type out the information so that the record can be searched, i.e. we create a text version of some of the information in the record. 

The only way I am going to see what is in this record with over 400,000 images is to start looking at the record. Perhaps, there is an index or table of contents to the record, but absent those types of helps, I will be looking through the online images just like I would with a microfilm. But, of course, I can do this from my home computer. 

Perhaps you can now begin to understand more completely the iceberg analogy. We have a huge number of records available in one form or another, but the number of those records that a name search actually searches is very small compared to the total number of records available on just this one website. 

Now, I am working in the Maryland State Archives helping to digitize records. How many of those records were previously available anywhere but in the individual counties of Maryland as paper copies? None of them. Think about it. 


  1. I am looking at land records for New London, CT. There is a list of 47 films. Some are digitized, some aren't. The dropdown box for location lists various family History centers. How do I know which films are at which centers?

    1. Hi,
      When you click on a particular film, the drop-down menu shows which Family History Center has that film.