End of the Microfilm Era: Navigating FamilySearch Collections

Last week was the end of an era. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City ended many years of loaning microfilms to local Family History Centers.

It is very likely that some microfilm may either never been digitized and available online or that viewing the digital version will require an on site visit to the library or a local Family History Center.

However, the loss of loaned microfilms isn’t the point of this blog post. I have noticed something about many family history researchers and the online methods that they use when accessing records on FamilySearch.

They don’t know how to properly dig down and find what they are looking for and then complain that “the record isn’t there.” That’s because their one and only method of searching the site involves the use of one technique.

First, they visit the website and find the SEARCH icon. Then, they choose to search by a person’s name in the record search. If they don’t find what they are looking for, they think the record isn’t there.


They may well be wrong because there are MANY collections on FamilySearch that are un-indexed or only partially indexed. Only searching by name makes it impossible to find an un-indexed (or possibly misread and mis-indexed) record.

Researchers need to treat digital collections with the same determination and methods that they would give to paper volumes. Here are some tips if you’ve never used FamilySearch by going directly to the digital record form.

When accessing the SEARCH page, don’t stop on the first link, which is where a name can be entered. Use the drop down menu and scroll to CATALOG.

Catalog Search

Let’s say I want to find out if Samuel Robertson, who died in Madison County, Kentucky in the summer of 1826, left a will. Instead of searching for Samuel Robertson, I will enter KENTUCKY, MADISON in the place search box.

A very long list of topics relating to Madison County, Kentucky came up in alphabetical order. I scrolled down to PROBATE, which has 5 entries.

I clicked and opened the Probate Records entry to see:

My goal is to find the actual digitized court records, not transcriptions or abstracts published by individuals, so I looked for the records that state the AUTHOR is the County Court. Sometimes there are two or more entries for original court records. Madison County’s entry shows Order Books right above Probate Records, but I’m looking for a will, so I clicked on the last item:

There are digital probate court records already online not only for Madison County, but for the state of Kentucky!

If a researcher has actually gotten this far, he/she might become very discouraged and stop at the next screen if they read the fine print at the top and bottom of the search screen:

First, only a handful of counties are indexed – Caldwell, Henry, Hickman, Russell and Trimble. Sooooo. . . . .if you ancestor lived elsewhere, you have the second option to browse images, all 989,444 of them!

This is the point where a less experienced researcher needs to realize that all he/she has done so far is to check the library card catalog to see if the library has the “book” you want.

It’s there, so don’t stop now! Be brave and jump in! Browse the images and you’ll find out it’s not all that daunting.

What comes up next is a list of all the Kentucky counties, so the almost one million images has been greatly reduced with one click. Most of the time, it gets even better with one more click. I will head to Madison County.

Not only are there many indexes housed in each county collection:

but, often, individual volumes have an index at the front or the back of the book. I say often because sometimes the book is totally without an index and reading page by page is necessary.

Now that you’ve seen the process for searching digital collections, it isn’t really all that overwhelming, is it? Instead of walking into a brick and mortar library looking in a card catalog and walking to the shelf to find and look through a particular book, you are doing the same thing but searching digitally.

If you’ve never spent much time delving into the extent of FamilySearch’s collections, you are missing out on fabulous record sets that could save you a LOT of money if you think you have to access them elsewhere.

What types of U.S. and international records that have been digitized are housed at FamilySearch?

Denmark Church Registers – The baptismal records have mostly been indexed by name, but marriages, burials and other miscellaneous records must be searched page by page. FREE

Slovakia Church Registers AND 1869 Census – The same is true for Slovakia’s church registers. Most baptisms have been indexed, but not so for the other records. Don’t be scared by the language either. Many of the records are written in Latin with data recorded in columns for date, name, parents, etc. They are not difficult to navigate.

In addition, Hungary took a census in 1869 (Slovakia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time) and it has also been digitized. Again, don’t worry about reading Hungarian, as the pages are set up to records people’s names, ages occupations and places of birth.

Canadian Records – There are some digitized images of the Drouin collection that traces early French Canadian genealogies:

Do you have Loyalists who fled to New Brunswick, Canada after the American Revolution? Or family who settled there afterwards? Land deeds can be invaluable to your research. Look at the county collections available!:

New York – Let’s look at some U.S. resources. I find New York to be a pesky state when it comes to research. It’s not terribly genealogist friendly because of all the records it doesn’t have, like 19th century marriage records, but other records can sometimes fill in the void.

At home access to land and probate records might help crack through a brick wall or two.

California – Were your family early California settlers? Do you think you might have someone who migrated west because of the Gold Rush or sometime soon after 1846? Did you know that besides the federal 1850 census, there is a second STATE census taken in 1852?

Last, but most certainly not least, have you searched the digital BOOK collection? It’s not just for books in the FamilySearch collection. 350,000 titles are held in several repositories:

However, if the book is in the FamilySearch collection, IT IS REMOVED from the book shelves in the Family History Library.

The most important point that I want to make is that just because the microfilm you need can no longer be sent to a Family History Center AND it is a record set that isn’t available digitally TODAY, be sure to check back often. New image collections are posted weekly on FamilySearch. It is expected that every thing that can be digitized will be completed by 2020.






6 thoughts on “End of the Microfilm Era: Navigating FamilySearch Collections”

  1. I just wish more early county land/deed records were digitized and available online. I did hear that the LDS did not have contracts with individual counties for digitizing. Do you know if this is true?

  2. RootsTech 2018 Contest Entry So sad they are not loading the films anymore but a trip to SLC isn’t so bad or far

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