Back to Basics

Exploring the FamilySearch Catalog

One of the top websites for doing family history is FamilySearch. They have an amazing amount of records available on their website for all over the United States and the world.

Right now is a very interesting time in using FamilySearch because they are changing up the way that they have records. Many of the records that FamilySearch has are contained on microfilms that are only available for viewing in select family history libraries or centers by using a microfilm reader or scanner. That method can be inconvenient for people who are not near a family history center or could not order the film to their family history center. About a year ago, FamilySearch announced that they were no longer making microfilms and would be focusing on digitizing the records, another method of making records available that they had been utilizing. By digitizing the records, it would make them much more accessible to the general public. Some of these records are digitized and free to use, some are only viewable in a family history center, and others have not yet made it into the digital world yet, so it’s just a matter of understanding the website to know what’s up with the records you want. I’ll get more into that after some more lead in.

There are multiple places to look for records on FamilySearch. One of the big ones is “Records,” but another one that I am especially fond of is the Catalog. The Catalog is a great place to see records that are specific to small jurisdictions and to find records that haven’t been indexed. It can also bring up family histories.

A great way to  see if there are any compiled sources on your family is to search their last name under the “Surname,” “Title,” and “Keyword,” functions. A word of caution, though: make sure it’s actually your family branch and not some people with the same last name who are off in Massachusetts instead of Maine, where you need to be researching.

The most common way that I use the catalog is by searching Locality. Doing a locality search goes back to the family history rule of searching all jurisdictions. I usually try to start with the most important jurisdiction for the area in which I’m researching, which is different. For example, if I was researching the Midwestern United States, I would search with the county as the smallest jurisdictional level, because it is likely to have the most relevant and highest quantity of records for me (i.e. Montcalm, Michigan, United States). If I was researching in England, I would go down to the parish level (i.e. Watford, Hertfordshire, England).

After searching for a locality, a bunch of options are going to come up that list the records that FamilySearch has tagged under that locality. Like this:

catalog search

From there you can select record type and delve in to the actual records themselves. For example, if I click on Vital Records, then four options come up and I can click the link to “Record of Marriages, 1851-1936” to see the availability of the records. There will be a list of the divided up films (organized under film numbers) that you could potentially look at. And that’s where we get into understanding the new changes in FamilySearch and their digitization. There are four symbols you need to know when looking at the Catalog. They are:

FS camFS filmFS lockFS mag

The camera means that the film is digitized online and you can click the camera to view the images. The reel means that it is not yet digitized and you have to find the physical film. The camera with a key over it means that you have to view the digitized images at a family history center. (Once you’re at the family history center, it won’t have the key above it.) The magnifying glass means that at least some of the records (not necessarily all) have been indexed and you can search it.

Okay. Wow. Long blog post and I hope it makes sense. The FamilySearch Catalog is such an important resource to know how to use in your family history research. Before I go, I feel like this post is just a sad block of text with black and white pictures so here is some color!


Back to Basics · tips and tricks

Busy, Busy, and No Time to Waste

This semester has been one of the craziest of my life. I have taken four family history classes (in addition to a history capstone class) and each of these classes has a final project that requires around 50 hours of research and several written report. It’s been pretty busy, especially as we are winding down to the end of the semester when all of the projects are due. Whether you are a student, casual hobbyist, or professional genealogist, life can be extremely crazy. As one of my professors likes to say, we have to fit genealogy into our lives because it’s not just going to happen. Well, all the chaos of life makes efficiency and time management all the more important.

One of my classes is a seminar on professional research in which we learn about what it’s like to be a professional in the genealogy world. There are a lot of options, but one of the big ones that a lot of students want to go into is client research, where someone asks you to do research for them and you do it and provide reports, etc. This is the background in which I learned a lot about efficiency in research, but it can apply to all kinds of research.

I am a perfect example of someone who is stricken with “Oh Shiny” syndrome (a name my professor likes to call it). I’m doing dedicated census research and suddenly I see this really cool fact (like a child previous unaccounted for) and, voila, I’m in vital records trying to find more records of this child, when they were born, and when they died. And about thirty minutes later I suddenly remember I was doing a census survey. Oops.

Now I am a firm believer that this is not always a problem, because it can lead to good discoveries, but it can also distract us from important research.

Thus, efficiency and time management.

I consider my mind to be an addled mess most of the time. So a wonderful tool for me to use is a to-do list. Yes, there is nothing more satisfying to me than putting a check mark next to an item on my list. I attended a fantastic lecture at RootsTech by Thomas Macentee who talked all about Research Checklists. There are multiple ways that you can do it, but basically, you list out all of the relevant record types for the time and place that your family is living in and it gives you a little bit of guidance as to where your time should be spent.

Another thing I like to do is, when I’m sitting down to do a session of research, I make a list of record types or places that I am going to search and what it is I’m looking for. Then I have small goals that can help me reach my bigger goals of the research.

You also will probably have to try and cure that “Oh Shiny” syndrome. This is where research logs (see that blog post!) and notes can come in handy. Because you now have a record of the information that you found and where you found it so you can go back and look at it later.

Basically, I want you to know that there are lots of different ways that you can manage your time. Find a way that you can do this yourself because, in the end, it makes your life better.

A final note about research logs: I know in a past blog post, I stressed the importance of blog posts. I just want to put in another plug for them because in one of my classes I got really behind on my research log (as in I stopped putting stuff in it completely…) and it is really biting me now. I can’t remember if I have searched databases or for certain pieces of information and so I feel like I’m going in circles. So do research logs!! Because it will help you so much with your efficiency and overall genealogy happiness.

random thoughts · Uncategorized

Your Ancestor’s Life Should Be Enough

One of my family history professors said something really cool in class the other day. She said, “Your ancestor’s life should be enough.”

Out of context, this might seem kind of like a weird statement. We had been talking about family stories or traditions and how over the years, stories tend to get embellished. A burned barn turns into a burned schoolhouse and an adopted ancestor suddenly becomes the Indian Princess. We all do it. And one of the reasons she said that family stories become less and less true over the years is because everyone wants to be related to someone famous. Everyone wants a bit of royal blood in their line.

“But,” she said, “your ancestor’s life should be enough.”

If you’ve read this blog before, then you know that sometimes I can get on a diatribe about how important it is to remember that your ancestors were people and not just names on a pedigree chart. And because I feel so strongly about that, this phrase really stuck out to me.

I recently worked on a project for a class last semester about my ancestor Kate Kendall (you’ll hear more about her in later posts). She grew up in Hertfordshire, England in the late 1800s through the late 1900s. (She lived to be over 90, guys! She’s pretty cool.) She never married and was a servant all of her life. She took care of her blind sister after her parents died. She lived through World War II. But I never found anything particularly amazing about her life. But what is so cool is that she was a real person! And I grew to love her and her family as I researched them. They weren’t “special” people, but they are my ancestors and so that made them important to me.

I’m starting to sound preachy again, so I’ll wrap up this blog post. But I just hope that as we go about our research, we can remember our ordinary ancestors among those who have been written in history books.

Gabby out.

(Sorry no picture in this post. I was never able to find a picture of Kate Kendall, so I figured I’d symbolically leave out a picture in this post.)
Back to Basics

The Importance of Research Logs

Oh my goodness, guys, seriously. Research logs are the BEST. I’m not gonna lie, when I first started out my family history journey, I was so annoyed by using research logs because it seems like such an annoying, extra step that in the end would be a waste of my time.

Guess what? I was wrong.

Research logs are the bomb!

By logging all of the searches that you have done, you can make sure not to repeat any searches you have previously made and you can have information at the ready to help with later searches.

There are several different ways you can do a research log. There are programs like Research Ties (that you must pay for by the way) that can allow you to make a research log. RootsMagic also has a research log function. You can also go a little bit more simple and use Excel or a table in Word. Here’s an example of how I usually do my research logs in Word:

Sam Kendall Log Pic


Regardless of how you decide to create your research log, there are a few things that are necessary for a research log. These are: date, search parameters, which repositories you were searching, your findings (and I recommend getting really detailed here), and citations.

One of the huge things that we have been talking about in my family history classes so far this semester is the idea of analyzing and correlating information from the records that you find. Analyzing the information is basically pulling out all of the relevant information that you can from a document (and sometimes there is more important information in documents than you think there is). Correlating information is tying that information back into the information that you already have. Like making sure that the marriage record you found could be your ancestors based on information you’ve already found in birth records, censuses, and locality research.

Research logs are a great place to do your analyzing–you can put that right in your “Findings” tab. And it is the beginnings of correlation too because you are writing the information into your research log, you are automatically going to start correlating as well as when writing research reports or correlating information for further searches, the information is already right there.

Even though I think research logs are the best, I admit that sometimes I am still really bad at them. I just get going on a research question  with my family and soon I’ve done a million different searches and I have no idea which were good and which led to nothing. So. Together we can work on slowing down a little bit. Enjoy the small details. And we will thank ourselves later.

British Research

The Wonders (and Disappointments) of Civil Registration

As promised, here is the first blog post about British research!

One of the first resources you need to know about with British research is Civil Registration. It started in 1837 and required the reporting of all births, marriages, and deaths. Before 1837, these kinds of vital records (as we call them in the US) were recorded in church records by the parishes. Don’t worry, we’ll talk about parish records a lot, just later. After 1837, they were recorded civilly and the coverage got a lot better as the years went on because fees were attached to not reporting births and deaths.

This all sounds pretty great right? A resource that tells you where someone was born or died and what day. Birth records include parents names (and mother’s maiden name!) as well as father’s occupation. Death records give age at death and residence.

But there’s a catch. You have to pay. It costs £8 to get a certificate mailed to you and it takes about two weeks. The GRO (General Register’s Office) is currently doing a pilot program in which you can pay £6 to get the certificate as a pdf in only 5 business days, which is really nice. So getting certificates can get pretty expensive pretty fast, but luckily the indexes are free and they give you all that you need (most of the time). The indexes list birth year and quarter (the British divide the year into 4 quarters: March, June, September, and December), which registration district they were born in, and mother’s maiden name. The death indexes list death year and quarter, registration district, and age at death.

One of the best places to search the birth and death indexes is on the GRO’s website (, but they are also available on and The GRO doesn’t have marriage indexes yet, but marriages are available on Find My Past and FreeBMD. Here’s an example of searching on the GRO Index:

Civil Registration

There are a few important things to know about the GRO indexes that pertain to your research methodology. The first is that the GRO birth indexes list mother’s maiden name. That means that if there are three Alice Johnsons who were born in Dorchester in 1853, you can use the mother’s maiden name to narrow it down to who your ancestor is. Or, if you know that the mother of your family group had a child, but you have no idea the name of the child or when they were born, you can do a parent search with the mother’s maiden name. Kind of cool.

The second important thing is that death indexes list the age at death. So once again, if you have a lot of people with the same name dying around the same time, but you know when your person was born, you can check to see if the age at death matches with the birth year.

The third thing you want to do is make sure that you have the right volume and page number before you order because otherwise you pay lots of money for something that doesn’t really help you. The best way for me, is to find the entry of the person you want in the GRO index, and then click “Order Certificate” right there so you don’t have to enter any information yourself.

Find My Past and FreeBMD are also really cool and I have found a lot of information that way. (I also recommend searching with at least a +/- 2 years range on the dates.) The biggest thing to remember is that each of these websites have their own weird algorithms for the searches so if one search doesn’t work, try a different search and then head to a different website to see if one of those searches works better on a different site. It’s kind of weird that way, but let me tell you, civil registration is ultimately a blessing. Seriously. Before 1837, you just better hope that your ancestor’s parish records survived and that their parents christened them and didn’t do something weird. And we will talk more about finding parish registers later, so don’t worry. And good luck with your initial, post-1837 research!

random thoughts

After a Long Absence, I Have Returned


Hello everyone!

I know it’s been a super long time since I posted on here (it’s been guilting me on the brain), but this semester has been pretty crazy. Any of you who have been to college will probably remember all the lovely late nights.

But the good news is that because I was so busy, I learned a lot! Which leads me to my next disclaimer: I took British Family History this semester, which means my mind is filled to the brim with British information. So a lot of my blog posts in the next bit will be about how to find records in Britain, with maybe some Back to Basics stuff thrown in for good measure as the ideas come to me.

But I have decided to get back into the game. So here we go.

tips and tricks

Special Collections and Family History


photo from Phototravelography

All over the world there are fantastic treasure troves of old documents, photos, and items. Libraries collect or are donated items from wars, historic events, or even just ordinary people sometimes. The cool thing is sometimes your ancestors can be mentioned in these things.

Most (at least major) academic libraries have special collections somewhere in the mystical depths of their building. And lots of public libraries have them too, albeit probably on a smaller scale, depending on the library.

You can use the library catalogs to search for your ancestors’ names or for types of records or localities. Many special collections also have finding aids that you can use to find documents or items. There is a difference between searching the catalog and using finding aids. Basically, they have different information that is being searched and the finding aid will give you more detailed information on the item’s location.

Most special collections will only allow you to look at the items in a reading room so definitely bring in a pencil and paper or your laptop to take notes. You may even be able to make a copy of a page that you want, for a fee.

So what kind of stuff can you find in special collections? Letters, books, military certificates, newspaper articles. There’s a lot of stuff. A lot of random stuff too. You can use these resources to find relationships, dates of moving or military service, or cool stuff about your ancestor that you didn’t know about and which can help flesh them out as a person.