Take a Successful Research Trip to the Family History Library

By Sunny Jane Morton

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It’s easy to get lost at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. I don’t mean physically, though the facility spans 142,000 square feet and takes up five floors (the army of helpful staff will help you find your way). I’m talking about getting lost in a haze of research possibilities. Without a focused plan, you may go into a glazed panic and photocopy every instance of your surname in records relating to your family’s locale, without learning anything solid about the people already on your tree.

family history library exterior
The FamilySearch Family History Library in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah.

3 Tips for Successful Research at the Family History Library

1. Identify your burning research questions.

Your most important decision before your trip is what you want to learn while you’re there. Analyze your latest or most important genealogical discoveries. What specific questions remain unanswered, or what conflicting evidence do you want to further investigate? Who remains a mystery? Whose life story do you want to explore in greater detail?

Pursuing a specific question will help you stay focused and productive at the Family History Library (FHL). For example, “Who were the parents of Alexander Adams?” or “Was my Alexander Adams the same Alexander Adams who appears in local Quaker records during that time?” Read this article by Drew Smith for more tips on creating an organized genealogy research plan.

Ideally, you’ll pursue all available online research avenues for your questions before coming to the FHL. (You’d hate to spend two valuable hours poring over microfilm, only to discover you could have reviewed a digitized version of that collection on from home.)

2. Identify Family History Library collections that may answer your questions.

Before you come to the FHL, spend some digging through the library’s online catalog: the FamilySearch Catalog. (FamilySearch is the online home of the FHL.) The FHL claims the largest genealogical collection in the world, with excellent coverage of the United States, British Isles, Scandinavian countries, continental Europe, Mexico, and parts of Germany. You’ll find copies of civil and church vital records, local histories, court records, military records, probate records, passenger arrival lists, maps and gazetteers, naturalization and land records, genealogical periodicals and all kinds of regional and ethnic research guides.

How to Use the Card Catalog

Watch the video tutorial below to see how to browse FHL Catalog collections. Focus on finding records that may help you answer your research question. Make a list of the ones that are only available at the FHL (rather than online, which you can review before you come). Copy the Collection or Shelf Location (such as “British Film”) and call numbers or microfilm/fiche numbers of each item onto your list. Prioritize these resources by how likely they are to answer your research questions.

Now you have a handy to-do list that can keep you focused and productive at the FHL. Make it even more effective by writing your research question across the top of the page and adding notes about what you’ve already learned. Have an electronic or printed copy with you when you go to the FHL.

3. Stay on track at the Family History Library.

Once you arrive at the FHL, head to the floor where your highest priority items should be. Take the elevator up for United States and Canada (microfilms on the second floor and print materials on the third). Go down to B2 for the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and the East India Company. Head to B1 for non-English language resources and all other countries.

Spend a few minutes orienting yourself on the floor (bathrooms, book stacks, computers, etc). Pull out your to-do list and start finding the item or items you’re most anxious to see. Review them carefully, one by one: try to balance research thoroughness with the amount of time you have to spend on each item.

Consult each reference in turn, making notes about your findings. Use your camera or tablet to take digital images of the title page or microfilm cover for each item, followed by images of the pages relevant to your research. (Photocopiers with a scan-to-your-flash-drive option are also available.) If you’re a paper-based researcher, make sure your photocopies include all the source citation information.

Your on-the-spot analysis of the records you discover may lead you in a different research direction than your original question. But in most cases, you should try to finish your line of questioning before starting another one. As time permits, consult the FamilySearch Catalog again for additional records to which your discoveries are leading.

Post-Research Trip

When you return home, file your findings. Transfer your digital images to your genealogy computer files (rename them as needed. File any paper items, too. While your discoveries are still fresh in your mind, finish analyzing them, comparing them to what you already know and adding information to your tree.

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