Kimmitt Genealogical Research

07 February 2011

What It's Like to Research at the Family History Library

Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah
I'm on a flight enroute to Salt Lake City and am thinking about the first time I went to the Family History Library, not all that long ago. I was so happy I thought I'd pop. I felt like a five-year old on Christmas Eve. I was very excited about what I might find, but also a little nervous that it would be so overwhelming that it would take me days to get up to speed. Instead, I read up on it ahead of time and followed what so many sage authors told me to do. I'm not going to reinvent the wheel and go through everything you need to know, but I can point you to others who have already done so.

Prepare Ahead!
My fellow Genea-Blogger, Randy Seaver published a post, Preparing to Visit the Family History Library back in January of 2009 that was very helpful. And just as helpful are the comments left by his readers.

Kimberly Powell,'s genealogy guru, has a great introductory article, Research at the Family History Library, for new researchers. has an article, too including info on how to download the FHL's special bookmark collection onto your own computer which can be helpful before you go.

The old has a FAQ page which might answer some of your questions as well.

Take Advantage of the Tremendous Website
In order to use the library effectively, you should be familiar with the website at It's layout is deceivingly simply. What first catches your eye is a search form. This is the home page, and where you do searches for information the FHL has uploaded to the website. You may have already used this, and will continue to use it while at the library as you update your information.

But let's look first to the bar at the top of that page.

While researching you will be concerned with the first two on the left. Click on FamilySearch to get back to the home page from wherever you are on the site.

If you click on Learn it will bring you to the FamilySearch Wiki. A wiki is like an encyclopedia, with the entries constantly being updated. This is where you go when you have a question and wish you had a live person to ask. It's the next best thing! For instance, I'll be doing some research in the Philippines, so I immediately went to the FamilySearch wiki page on the Philippines to find out what records have been created (and by whom), which ones have been filmed by the FHL, and which ones are available on This is a tremendous asset to the researcher! So, of course I went to the wiki to learn tips and techniques for researching at the FHL.

Back at the home page you see this:
Look at the line with Historical Records, Family Trees and Library Catalog. Historial records are what have been uploaded and can be found on the FamilySearch website. Family Trees are submissions from all sorts of people and can be useful, but can have errors and should be verified. And finally, this is how you access the card catalog.

The Card Catalog is Your Best Friend
I'm going to assume you have done most of your preliminary research, though. Before you go you'll need to have your notes in order, with lists of things you intend to research. In order to do this, and to save precious research time, you should go into the Family History Library catalog. I don't want to give step-by-step instructions of anything here because the entire website is changing a lot these days, as they upload more and more information for lucky genies. But if you go to the wiki you'll find Introduction to the Family History Library Catalog which will help you get organized before you go. While you're doing your advance research, you'll be improving your skills and speed, and that will save you even more time at the library itself.

But what does it feel like to research at the Family History Library? 
Like the website, the library itself is deceptively simply in its layout. Upon entering you are greeted by friendly missionaries who are happy to direct you to the correct floor. Do not be concerned that the missionaries will try and convert you on the spot. On the whole I have found them to be extremely courteous and helpful in non-complex genealogical questions, and I think they understand that people are there to work. No one has ever discussed religion with me there. For more complicated questions you can ask someone at the central help desks.

They do have an actual orientation, which can give you a better feel for the layout. Unlike most research facilities, there is no sign-in, no ID required, no research fee. It feels very open and free. So I usually wheel in my briefcase quite early (it opens at 8:00am) and find a good cubicle on the floor I want that day (3-US and Canada books, 2-US and Canada microfilm, 1-Family History books, B1-International and B2-British Isles). The only floor I don't use much is the first floor. My ideal cubicle is dark, has a fine microfilm reader, and enough room for my laptop and a notebook. I lock my computer to the furniture and off I go. You need to buy a copy card if you want to make photocopies, or even better, bring a flash drive and you can download your images directly to that!

Researchers at the Family History Library's microfilm readers
You are allowed to walk up and fetch your own microfilm or books, as many as you want (within reason, I'm sure) and again, no check-out, no watchful eye. It's very relaxing, and nice to feel you're trusted. There's always a quiet hum of pages turning, microfilm machines being cranked, people helping others, missionaries chatting with each other or helping, and photocopy machines running. OK, maybe not so quiet, but it all fades into white noise once you wind that microfilm up.
Cabinets full of microfilm documents from all over the world

The Thrill
The vast quantity of information contained under that one roof never ceases to amaze me. I frequently think to myself, "Well, I got more Massachusetts research done in Salt Lake City today than I could have in Massachusetts in three days." Why? Because there is no driving time. No waiting while clerks retrieve registers, or order volumes from an off-site location. It makes me feel so efficient! And then, not only can I research in Massachusetts and New England records, but I can go across the world. It's truly amazing. When doing Irish research, the mantra is always, "Do the bulk of your research here in the US, then cross the ocean." When you're in SLC you can do both! You feel like a world traveler. It's a great feeling!
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Unknown said...

Polly what a great post! So helpful to first-timers at the FHL and those who have been many times can still learn a few refreshers. Much more helpful than mine on the subject!lol

With regards,

Polly F. Kimmitt said...

That's a great post, Valerie! Wish I had seen it to include in my post! Very practical information. Funny you mention headphones, I used some today to block out loud-talkers nearby. It was great!

JAG Man said...

Polly, what a fun blog. I am one of those part-time missionaries who try our best to be helpful to all the patrons. Thank you so much for helping others arrive at the FHL prepared for a productive and enjoyable visit. I hope no one ever feels "threatened" by those of us who are missionaries. We are there to help patrons with their research - hopefully with a smile and some degree of professionalism. Thanks to you and all others who come to the library and allow us to be helpful while we are there. Best wishes.