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Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill -- 2/2/2005

Lessons I Learned at the Family History Library

Professional responsibilities afforded me the opportunity to research sporadically at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, for three days this January. This week we will look at some suggestions for readers who are lucky enough to make a trek to a distant research facility.

Catalog Dates May Be Awry
The online card catalog for the Family History Library was a wonderful and a great tool in helping me plan for my trip. However, sometimes the catalog can be slightly incorrect.

I encountered this on two occasions with two entirely separate sets of records. The catalog entry for some Catholic baptismal records indicated the time span covered was up to 1885. While looking at the records, the baptismal entries did only go through 1885. However, when I continued to view the materials, there was an index to entries that covered an additional fifteen years not noted in the card catalog. While the actual records for this later time frame were not on the microfilm, the index did tell me that there were entries afterwards and in what years those entries were recorded. If I had stopped when the actual christening records ended, I would have missed additional information.

A set of emigration papers from Ostfriesland, Germany, was also very high on my to-do list. With one-half of my ancestors coming from that area between 1850 and 1883, I had high hopes for the records. The catalog entry indicated the information from the records started as early as the 1850s. There were references in the emigration records to births as early as the 1840s. The emigration records themselves however actually dated from the mid-1880s, too late for my ancestors. Fortunately, my search list contained the names of aunts and uncles who had emigrated later, and I was able to find an entry for relative Tjark Janssen who emigrated in 1893. The record contained four pages of information on Tjark and his family.

Be Organized
Not only was my research time limited, it was spread out over three days in two hours increments. Consequently, lengthy projects were not practical (at least not for me). As a result I compiled a list of lookups in records from five countries over a two-hundred-year time period. I would need to be organized. The lookups I needed were fairly specific. To make the best use of my time, I put each lookup in a file folder that included the following pieces of information:

-- Call numbers for the source being used
-- Reasons why I was using the record
-- Details that were needed to search the record
-- Pedigree and family group charts where appropriate

As I prepared over a two-week time period, I kept thinking of new things to look for. As I added folders with new lookups, I wrote in pencil on the outside of each folder what information I needed to complete the lookup (names of parents, a date, a village, etc.) so that I had all the information I needed in the folder when I finally arrived at the library. As I prepared, I put the folders in two stacks: one with folders that were "complete" and one with folders where I needed to get some facts or additional printouts from my database before I left.

Before I went to the library, I visited the library's website to determine exactly what materials were on what floor. I did not want to be running from one floor to another and did not want to drag all my lookup folders with me each time I went to the library. My lookups included family histories, British records, German records, Swiss records, and United States records. I sorted the folders by the floor where the records would be located. There was no need to make unnecessary trips up and down stairs!

Use the Internet Wisely
The Family History Library has numerous computer stations with Internet access as well as locations throughout the library where a laptop computer can be connected to the Internet. I used the Internet minimally at the library. There are millions of records at the library---I can use the Internet at home.

However, it was very convenient to have the library card catalog accessible in so many locations and to be able to perform quick lookups in some online sources if a discovery warranted. There were times where a "hot" or unexpected find required me to perform some quick searches online to make better use of my library time.

Read Directions
The library has a relatively new machine that makes digital copies from microfilm, and I was anxious to try it out. Unfortunately in my haste, I did not read all the directions and failed to complete the "burn" of my CD. I thought I had saved my images on the CD I purchased at the Family History Library, but I did not. However, since I kept precise track of what records were searched (and for whom I was searching), reproducing the searches was relatively easy. Adequate preparation makes library research easier and facilitates the tracking of what work has been done.

Is It in Storage?
Not everything the Family History Library has in its collection is located on site. The library has some materials in storage that must be retrieved. The online card catalog will indicate what materials are not housed at the main library. Patrons can e-mail the library in advance of their visit and have the materials ready when they arrive. These items in storage cannot be requested immediately just because I flew 1,000 miles and missed three connecting flights to arrive in Salt Lake (oops...that's another story). If there had been any items I needed from storage, I should have made the request before I left on my trip.

Decide How You Work
Having led research trips and having prepared for numerous library trips myself, I have read more about trip preparation than a person probably should. However, I tend to stick to research practices that work well for me--the way I am, and the way my mind works. This does not mean that I ignore sound methodology or good genealogical practice. What it does mean is that I do not radically change the way I organize or plan my research. I constantly tweak how I organize and plan, but do not make major changes. My ancestors confuse me enough without using a new process to confuse me even more.

Since I do little of my initial analysis on a computer, I opted to not take my laptop in the library. For me, it was one more thing to drag around, and I was constantly afraid I was going to leave it somewhere and forget it.

Since I hate to take handwritten notes, I make copies whenever possible. I decided since my time was so short that if a record would not copy well (but was legible) that I would make a note to order the same film from my local branch library. Then I could transcribe it when I could take my time and would not feel rushed.

Write Your Name on Your Hard Copy Card
Copies and printouts can be made at the library at a nominal cost. Some machines take actual money, but all will use a copy card which can be charged up with money at several stations throughout the library. The card is more convenient than carrying change or running to get change. The suggestion to put your name on your card is one that should be heeded. I did not. Somewhere in the library was a copy card with nearly ten dollars of unused copy money on it--without my name on it.

A Great Experience
The Family History Library in Salt Lake is an excellent place to research, if the opportunity presents itself. As for me, I'll be returning in September of this year when the Federation of Genealogical Societies hosts it annual conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center. And I'll be running around doing more quick lookups in two-hour increments. You can be assured I'll write my name on my copy card this time!

ADN Editor's Note: The FGS 2005 Conference program is expected to be available online later this month at

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at or visit his website at, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2005,

Michael's other genealogy articles