MyCinnamonToast® Family Portal

Entering the Door to the LDS Family History Center

by Edna Katherine French

A patron works in one of the Mormon Family History Centers

Libraries are not made; they grow.

—Augustine Birrell (1850-1933)

"I'm just plain stuck!" I wailed to my friend Sue as we walked home from the county library.

"Edna, what do you mean?" She looked at me in concern. We had been best friends for years and were always there to help each other when needed.

"You know that I'm just a beginner in gathering my family genealogy. I wrote all this stuff down from my grandmother's Bible. It goes way back to my great-great grand-parents, but I don't know how to get any more information about the people, themselves. I'd like to see their actual birth, marriage and death certificates and find out how many children they had and where they moved to and more about the family than just what she recorded, but I don't have the foggiest idea about how to start doing that."

"Edna, the Family History Center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is a library of resources specifically designed to help people do just what you want to do. Going there would be your logical next step."

"Ok, but what if I'm not a member of that church? Could I still do research there?"

"Sure. As a matter of fact, you'll find that over two-thirds of the people using the Family History Center resources are not members of the church. Look, all you need to begin is a pad of paper, a pencil, the information that you have so far, and a little bit of courage. That's all. Everyone there is very helpful and friendly."

Sue was right. That conversation took place some time ago. I did take my pencil, paper, and notes to the door of the nearest Family History Center and looked through the glass into the busy room. I saw an ordinary sort of library--computers, books, people--I entered the door and began to feel the difference immediately!

One of the Family History Center librarians sensed my nervousness and came to greet me with a smile. "Hello," she said. "I'm Sister Ives. You must be new here. Why don't you sign in and then I'll show you around."

I had never received such royal treatment in any library. She walked me through the rows of books, explaining the filing system and the library holdings. She told me that this particular Family History Center was a small branch of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. "Many of our books have been donated, as is typical," she said, "and so the books in the small libraries vary from one to another."

She paused in her tour with me to answer another library patron's question about something called soundex. Then she turned back to me. "That's a system used to index the U.S. censuses. It codes together surnames that sound similar but have different spellings. We can show you how to use it when you get to that point in your research."

"In this room we have five microfilm and eight microfiche machines. This one will make copies of your microfilm pages. We have three cabinets full of microfiche films. You can explore them and ask questions of me or any of the librarians whenever you want."

"Now, this is what I've been waiting for," I sighed, as we moved into the computer room. "I'm pretty comfortable around computers, but you'll have to explain what these computers do. You see, I have my grandmother's Bible and the information in it goes all the way back to my great-great-grandmother. But I want to know more about my family. How do I find out how many children they had and who my aunts and uncles married? How do I get birth and death certificates? How can I find out about my father's side of the family and where they came from? Family tradition says that they came from Ireland during the potato famine. How can I verify this?"

"Whoa!" She held up a hand and grinned at me. "You've already completed the first step. You've identified what you know about your family and we can help you put that information on forms called a Pedigree Chart and a Family Group Sheet. These two forms are vital for organizing your family information as you gather it. Here are a few blank copies for you to fill out."

"Thanks, Sister Ives. I've heard about these forms, but haven't seen one yet. I'll get them filled out tonight. What's next?"

"Next I want you to have a copy of this Research Log. You should choose an ancestor from your pedigree chart about whom you want to know more, preferably one born before 1900. Ask yourself questions that you want answered, such as ‘When did he or she die, and where?’ It's generally easier to find out about the death information before the marriage, and the marriage before the birth. Use the research log to write your ancestor's name, your objective, the approximate date and place. Then you can record the work you do in your search so you don't duplicate any steps.

"This pamphlet called will be a big help to you as you plan your research. It starts right where you are today, with what you have already identified about your family, and introduces the FamilySearchTM computer files that are available to help you. Finally it provides clues about evaluating your information and how to file your data. You can access it on line by going to FamilySearch Research Guidance--How Do I Begin".

Again Sister Ives paused to help another patron. This time she leaned over the computer to show him how to change something called the International Genealogical Index (IGI) to the Addendum Section. "The IGI is a huge list of dates and places of birth, christening, and marriage for people who lived during the early 1500s to the early 1900s. It contains hundreds of millions of names. It comes in two parts; the original CD-ROMs were issued in 1993, and the Addendum was issued several years later," she explained to me. "The IGI is part of the system of computer files called FamilySearchTM"

"Wow!"I said. "Can I start right now looking for my relatives?"

Sister Ives grinned. "You can, but I'd like to introduce you to some of the other computer programs and also to the Family History Library Catalog."

I glanced around the small room, but didn't see anything resembling card catalog drawers like I was familiar with, so I returned my attention to Sister Ives.

"Another of the FamilySearchTM computer files is called Ancestral File. It contains family genealogies, mostly about deceased people and is linked into pedigrees to show ancestors and descendants. It contains millions of names from families around the world. Each person is responsible for entering his or her own data into Ancestral File and for ensuring that it is as accurate as possible."

By this time I was sitting in front of the computer, my fingers itching to touch the keys. "It looks like there are some other programs available here also," I said.

Sister Ives grinned at my eagerness. "Yes, you'll get to explore the Scottish Church Records, the Military Index, and the Social Security Death Index when you have a need.

"Sometimes you'll find the computers with just CD-ROM drives all reserved, so let's change from using the CD-ROMs to using this computer which can access the Internet. The Internet site that will give you the information you need is FamilySearch and you can also use it from home if you like. On this you can find Ancestral File, the IGI, do Custom Searches, find the Library Catalog, and much more information. The Resource File is a list of family history records that individuals have submitted through the Internet. You can also search Web Sites that thousands of LDS volunteers have categorized. And there are collaboration mailing lists which have been created by registered users of FamilySearch Internet. You can download a free copy of Personal Ancestral File for WindowsTM (PAF). That is a computer program which will allow you to store, retrieve, and share your genealogical data. With your love of computers, you won't have any trouble learning how to use it, and I highly recommend using one of the better computer programs that is available now."

"I'm glad you showed me this, because I can do a lot of work from home before coming in to the Family History Center. I do plan to get a computer database and I already know that it is important to back up my data frequently!"

"Right. Now, let me show you what to do after you find the information you are looking for. You will notice that there is a microfilm or microfiche number on the catalog entry. We can order that microform for you from Salt Lake City for only the cost of postage and handling. It will take only a few weeks to arrive here. Then we can keep it for you on loan and it can be renewed twice before it has to be returned. Fortunately, many of the books in Salt Lake City are on microfilm so we have access to them as well. You can do much of your research online at home and then come in here to order and view your microfilms and interpret what you find."

"Sister Ives, you make it sound easy in a way. But where is the library catalog in case I need to look something up while I'm here and I can't get on the Internet?"

Sister Ives held up another CD-ROM. "This catalog is really the heart of the Family History Center," she said. "It will allow you to search all of the extensive collection in the Family History Library, which includes over 2.5 million microforms and 300,000 books. Right now you can search in three ways: 1) by Place Name, which will give you information about or from a place; 2) by Surname, which will give records that include a specific surname or written family histories; or 3) by a category called All Searches, which will provide information on the above two categories plus you can enter author, call number, and film number.

Now it was my turn to grin. No wonder I hadn't located the card catalog. The information was on a CD!

"Sister Ives, you have been more than helpful to me. I didn't know what to expect when I entered the door to the Family History Center, but you have not only given me ample information, you greeted me warmly and made me feel welcome."

"You are always welcome in any Family History Center. Whenever you come here, feel free to ask questions. And remember that the experienced patrons all know more than I do and are probably your greatest resource. Many of them really like to help others in their research." She moved away to assist another person.

I popped the Family History Library Catalog into my hand and pondered Sister Ives's comment that the catalog is the heart of the Family History Center. "Humph," I thought to myself. "The catalog may be the heart, but Sister Ives and the other librarians must surely be the welcoming souls of the Family History Centers across the world."

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Your Guide to the Family History Library

by Paula Stuart Warren, James W. Warren
The Family History Library in Salt Lake City is the world's largest archive of genealogy and family history materials. No other repository compares in the quantity and quality of its records. It is only fitting, then, that such an extraordinary facility warrants this exceptional guide. Intended for beginning and intermediate genealogists, this books enables readers to use the library's resources effectively, whether in Salt Lake City or from their home.

by Lois Mai Chan
Have you ever felt totally lost in a large library like the Smithsonian, sort of wandering around, looking at stuff and wondering where the things are that you, personally, want? You know that you can always ask a librarian, but often they are busy helping other people when you need them. Why not use the catalog system? If you know a bit about library cataloging and classification you can often help yourself more independently.

Cataloging and Classification covers general principles of bibliography, cataloging, and indexing. Lois Chan's Cataloging and Classification textbook is the best because the author is the most widely known and respected authority in the field and this text presents complex and difficult information clearly and in an organized understandable manner. It also provides exercises to reinforce the concepts.

by Eric J. Hunter
Eric Hunter has also written the book Cataloging with K.G.B.Bakewell, who has written several other books exploring cataloging systems.

by William Dollarhide, Ronald A. Bremer
This book identifies research facilities with genealogy collections at local, state, regional, and national levels. The top ten genealogy resource centers in the U.S. are listed first, followed by the locations of the best genealogy resource centers for each state. After the state listings, there are chapters for identifying the regional branches of the National Archives and the vital statistics offices for each state. Other books by William Dollarhide. William Dollarhide is one of the authors of that mainstay of American genealogy, Ancestry's Red Book : American State, County and Town Sources . Other books by Ronald A. Bremer.

The following pamphlets can be obtained either through your closest Family History Center or online, as noted.

A number of Research Outlines are available for purchase at the Family History Center. These give information about the genealogical records and how to obtain and use them for each of the 50 United States and many of the countries of the world.


This pamphlet is published annually and is an overview of the Family History Library and worldwide Family History Centers. It is available at Family History Centers.

This pamphlet is available at Family History Centers and introduces the five-step process of research. You can also view it online at FamilySearch Research Guidance--How Do I Begin. You can read this step-by-step guide from the comfort of your ergonomically aligned computer chair.

Related Web Pages

This site describes the records, services and resources available at the new FamilySearch Center, the Family History Library and its far-flung Family History Centers. It provides the history of the library and the key resources and services provided.

Research Guidance is a tool that helps you decide what records to use to find information about your ancestor. It lists the best records to use, recommends the order in which to search them, provides step-by-step instructions for finding information in the records, and tells you where copies of the records may be located. (updated: July 18, 2000)

The new online Family History Library Catalog allows you to search by Place, Surname, Author, Call Number, or Film/Fiche. Fortunately, the help information is available on each screen. But experts can click the "help" link at the bottom of the screen and alternate between having the help information take up one-third of the right side of the screen or having it simply disappear until needed. That's pretty handy.

This site summarizes the story of how the Family History Library was established in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1894 and since has become the largest of its kind in the world, housing literally millions of microfilms, and thousands of microfiche and books, and many other records. With the help of hundreds of volunteers, the microfilm program continues to expand. Almost all of the Library's resources can be loaned to people using one of the many Family History Centers close to them for the cost of postage and handling.

Search for the Family History Center closest to you.

Search for your surname: