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How to search FamilySearch records online

For many years, using FamilySearch’s vast collections of records often meant taking a trip to the Family History Library or a FamilySearch affiliate library to scroll through microfilms. Or it might have meant ordering the needed microfilm and waiting for it to arrive at a local family history center. Over the past several years, though, FamilySearch has been digitizing these records and publishing them online for people to search and view from their own homes. Online collections have continued to grow, decreasing the need for microfilms. In fact, as of September 2017, you can no longer order microfilms or microfiche from FamilySearch.org, making the shift complete.

Probably few people are pining for the old microfilm methods as they pull up records about their ancestors on their computers at home. This article explains what records are available online and tells how to access them. You’ll probably agree that finding your ancestors has never been easier.

How to use the search barUsing FamilySearch’s Records

To use the FamilySearch records at home, you first need to know where to look for what you need. After logging in to your FamilySearch account, click or hover over the Search tab at the top of the page to see some options. This article will help you explore the Records, Catalog, and Books options.

  1. Records. The Records option allows you to search using your ancestor’s name or search by choosing a location or a collection. Many people simply begin by typing in an ancestor’s name. Keep in mind that this search pulls from indexed records only. If you choose to search using a location or a specific collection, you can still use your ancestor’s name to search within those records, but you can also browse unindexed records.
    Searching historical records on FamilySearch
     
  2. Catalog. If you haven’t spent time in the FamilySearch catalog, you should! The catalog gives you a different perspective on finding records. Perhaps the most effective way to use the catalog is to search for a place, such as a town or county, and see what records are available in that jurisdiction. The results will be organized by record type, such as vital records or church records. When you find a collection you’re interested in, you can find out how and where it is available and then begin looking for the information you need. Be sure to check the catalog often because it is expanding almost daily as new records are added.
    How to search the catalog on FamilySearch
     
  3. Books. This option allows you to search for digital copies of books from the Family History Library and other institutions.

Once you find a record with your ancestor’s name on it, the FamilySearch image viewer gives you lots of options. You can view a gallery of thumbnail images, scroll through the images, or manipulate the images using the zoom, rotate, adjust, and invert options. You can also choose to print or download images, unless a record restriction prevents this.

Understanding Record Availability at FamilySearch

Records have different levels of availability on FamilySearchAs you look for records on FamilySearch, you will notice that not all the records are available in the same way. Here are some distinctions to know.

  1. Not all digitized records have been indexed. While indexing continues to move forward at a rapid pace and while many volunteers from around the world have joined in the effort, digitization continues to be a step ahead of indexing (if you would like to help index records, learn how here). When you search historical records using an ancestor’s name, your search includes only indexed records. To find your ancestor in unindexed records, you must browse the records, looking at each page for your ancestor’s name. The FamilySearch icons don’t differentiate between collections that have been indexed and those that have not been, only whether the actual records are available at FamilySearch.  
  2. Some records at FamilySearch have limited access. If you receive a message or see an icon (icons are explained below) that indicates you don’t have access to certain records, first make sure that you are logged in to your account. Sometimes this simple step will get you the access you need. More often, though, restricted records are currently available only at family history centers and FamilySearch affiliate libraries. This is usually because of contractual agreements between FamilySearch and the record holders. In some rare instances, you will be able to view such records at a family history center only, not at a FamilySearch affiliate library. FamilySearch may receive permission in the future to share these records online, so keep checking back.

Icons near the records will help you distinguish what kind of availability to expect. In the catalog, icons are found in the Format column by the listed microfilm. They are also listed next to the record title in the Records section. Here is an explanation of some of the icons:

Available records to view from home show a camera icon

These records are available on FamilySearch for home viewing. These records may be indexed or unindexed.

This icon indicates records that can be viewed on a partner website

These records are found on a partner website. Often you can search the index on FamilySearch but will be directed to another website to view the image.

Access to some records is restricted when searching at home

Access to these records is restricted. Often a message will pop up, explaining what you need to do to see the records. This may include logging in, going to a FamilySearch affiliate library, or going to a family history center.

The index can be searched but the actual records are restricted

The index is available to search, but access to the actual records on FamilySearch is restricted.

Transcribed record details but no image

The records are available on microfilm at the family history center indicated (usually the Family History Library in Salt Lake City).


When you find a specific record that may contain your ancestor’s information, you may see several other icons that indicate the record’s availability.

Transcribed details and an image are available to view

You will be able to see the transcribed record details but not the record itself.

Records with this icon are attached to family tree

You can see both the transcribed details as well as an image of the original record.

relative race winners

The family tree icon means you can see the person the record is attached to, as well as that person’s family tree, if available. You must be logged in to access this.

Searching Records Not Available at FamilySearch

FamilySearch continues to digitize microfilms at a rate of 1,000 each business day. That is the equivalent of digitizing every microfilm that has been requested by patrons in the past five years. What if the record you want hasn’t been digitized? First, check other family history websites to see if the information is available elsewhere. If not, you can request to have FamilySearch move your film to the top of the digitization priority list by contacting FamilySearch Support online or by phone at 1-866-406-1830.

With the changes to FamilySearch’s record collections, gone forever are late nights at the library, spinning microfilm reels. Instead, you can look forward to even more success finding your ancestors using your own computer.

 

 



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