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Research Tip 4: Finding Ancestors at the Family History Library

by Raymond S. Wright III, Ph.D., AG
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Making Sense of the Family History Library Catalog
The Family History Library has more than two million rolls of microfilm with original records like births, marriages, deaths, censuses, probate records, and more. Learn how to search through all of the information to find what you are looking for.
FamilySearch also provides access to the collections of the Family History Library through the Family History Library Catalog. Every library must have a catalog, otherwise you and I cannot find the library materials we need. All materials received by the Family History Library are described in a computer based catalog. The database thus created is available to Library users in Salt Lake City and in every LDS Family History Family Center. A microfiche version allows researchers to search under authors and titles, subjects, surnames, and localities. A CD version of the Family History Library Catalog provides a locality search, surname search, microfilm/fiche number search, and a computer number search. Both the microfiche and CD versions are found in family history centers.

The author/title and subject searches are similar in many ways to catalog searches in most public and college libraries. The locality and surname searches are unique to the Family History Library Catalog. The Family History Library adds thousands of published genealogies and family histories to its already large collection of this type of publication. The surname catalog permits you to type in any surname you desire and learn if there are family histories or genealogies in the Library that contain these names. Often there will be hundreds of books with your surname mentioned in them. The search can be narrowed by adding key words such as localities where your family lived or other surnames found in your pedigree.

The approximately two million rolls of microfilm at the Family History Library contain original records like births, marriages, deaths, censuses, probate records, passenger lists, naturalization records, and many other document types. Librarians at the Family History Library make these millions of manuscripts available to us by describing them in the library catalog under the jurisdiction that created them — parishes, towns, counties, states, provinces, and nations. The wise researcher recognizes that his ancestors may be described in city, county, state and national records.

Gazetteers help us learn which jurisdictions were responsible for the areas where our family members lived. A gazetteer is a book that provides descriptions of the communities in a nation. The descriptions normally show which religious and civil authorities had responsibility for these localities. Knowing the city, county, and state in which ancestors lived permits us to use several search levels in the Family History Library Catalog: town/city/parish search; county, non-Canadian province search, or the state/nation search.


About the Author
Raymond S. Wright III is a professor at Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah), where he has taught courses in family history and genealogy since 1990. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. in history from the University of Utah. An Accredited Genealogist of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, Wright was manager of library operations there from 1979-1990. During his employment, Wright did numerous research assignments in archives and libraries in the United States and many foreign countries. He is a specialist on genealogical records in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Wright has served twice as chairman of the American Library Association's Genealogy Committee. He is also author of The Genealogist's Handbook: Modern Methods for Researching Family History.

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Previous Research Tip: Social Security Records
Next Research Tip: Your Family in Print
How-To Article: Finding and Using Published Genealogies

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