Tuesday’s Tip: Top Ten Tips for Visiting the Family History Library


Last year I took a brief weekend trip to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and copied a wonderful selection of records – then couldn’t believe how quickly the time passed, and how many more records I still wanted to copy or locate! So this year I planned a week-long visit. After having a very successful trip, I thought I would share my top ten tips for making the most out of your research trip to the Family History Library!

1. Research, research, research. Research in order to research? YES! Novice, intermediate and advanced genealogists can greatly benefit from a visit to the FHL, but unless you are local to the area, I would recommend visiting FHL only after you have your family tree pretty well sketched out, and are looking to fill in gaps, try to solve brick walls, or get copies of things you just can’t easily obtain from other repositories. With that in mind, you probably already have a mental list of the families and/or individuals you want to find additional records for. I keep a running list of any basic vital records I am missing for my ancestors, which can easily be converted into a wish list of records to search for at the FHL. Then I looked over my family tree software to see if there were certain families I wanted additional non-vital records for, or if there were problem solving techniques I could apply to attempt to solve outstanding questions.

Then: become good friends with the FamilySearch.org website, in order to achieve tip number 2:

2. Compile a detailed list of the records and microfilms you want to scan or copy. Use the FamilySearch website for two important components: identifying specific individuals records on FamilySearch’s Search feature, and identifying specific microfilms from FamilySearch’s Catalog. Both steps are important. For example, using the search feature, I located an indexed baptism record for my great grandfather in the collection Germany, Births and Baptisms, 1558-1898 which provided the microfilm number, page number, and line number for his specific record that I wanted to copy. But then, using the catalog search, I learned that there were numerous microfilms for the church that he was baptized in which were not transcribed online and I knew I wanted to search for additional records – confirmation records, marriage records, and death records. So that provided me with two types of records to search for: in the first instance, I had a specific record with a specific page reference on a specific microfilm to search for. In the second instance, I had a specific microfilm to search in general for names I believed would be on the film, but with no guarantee that they would definitely be there, or knowledge of where in the film they would be located. Make a detailed list of the microfilms you want to search [see bonus tip #11 for organizational tips for this list!] and include any relevant notes that might be useful in finding the record – ie parents names, date of the event, etc.  And be sure to bring along a decent-sized USB memory stick (or a few!) in order to digitally scan then save a copy of the record you find (using the microfilm readers first!) using the excellent ScanPro microfilm scanners on every floor’s scan/print/copy stations.

3. Make good use of cloud and mobile technology before your visit. The first time I visited, I brought an old laptop that had a very outdated copy of my family tree software file which turned out to be missing some of the people I wanted to research, and placed a few articles on my Dropbox account for reference, only to remember upon arrival that the laptop had an older version of Word and couldn’t open the articles. Unhelpful on both accounts! Additionally, I forgot several genealogical website passwords. So this time around, I downloaded the Rootsmagic mobile app for my phone and made sure a current copy of my family tree was placed in the cloud for the app to access (Rootsmagic uses Dropbox for this step). Then I made good use of the password storage and encryption program http://keepass.info/. While at the library, my husband found that using heavy reference international dictionaries was cumbersome while looking at Italian, Hungarian, and German records, so he downloaded the Google Translate app on the spot and happily translated away on his phone while reading records in foreign languages. Take a moment to consider if you have any other cloud or mobile apps that should be up-to-date before you make the trip.

4. Make use of digital collections only available onsite at FHL. Ahead of time, check FamilySearch.org for any digital databases relevant to your ancestors that are noted as only available to view onsite at the Family History Library. I even discovered some collections that were collaborations between FHL and other repositories were available to view, despite not being explicitly noted as available on the website. For instance,  Wales, Monmouthshire, Parish Registers, 1538-1912 and several other Welsh databases are collaborations between FHL and FindMyPast. On my home computer, I could view a basic transcribed record on Family Search from this collection, but in order to see the primary document it said “The image is viewable at findmypast.co.uk. By clicking here you will be leaving FamilySearch.org” and required a FindMyPast subscription. But onsite at FHL, the record was available to view for free (through either FHL’s partnership or their institutional collaboration).

5. Pace yourself. Make sure to take breaks! There is a snack room on the main floor with vending machines, the only place in the library where food and drink are allowed. Make sure to hydrate! We found it easy to have a morning research session, then take a lunch break, followed by an afternoon research session. And since the library is open on most days until 9 PM occasionally we were ambitious enough to then have an evening research session following dinner. (But see Tip Number 9, too!) I also found it useful to occasionally switch between searching for “easy” records (such as already identified-with-certificate-numbered NY vital records or Irish civil registration records) versus more time-consuming unindexed or complicated records. Although plowing through a series of “easy” records felt very satisfying, it involved lots of jumping up and down to pull the microfilm, find its location on the reader, then run to the ScanPro to make a digital copy, then start over again. Sometimes it was nice to mix it up and sit for a solid chunk of time scrolling for relevant surnames in hard-to-read films, or slowly translating and closely investigating foreign language films (and save yourself some translating time and see if the FamilySearch wiki has already translated header columns of common international records such as Hungarian Catholic Church records, German FamilienbĂĽcher, Italian civil registrations, etc.).

6. Make sure there is time to order Vault Records or missing films. If you have any films that are stored offsite at the Granite Mountain Vault, be sure to order them right away because they take at least a day to arrive (and when we were there, a mountain slide near the vault caused delays!). Or even better, order them in advance (which I didn’t realize I could do beforehand). Additionally, both times I visited, there was at least one film that was just “missing” – probably misfiled (patrons are responsible for re-filing their films and sometimes mistakes are made – but it’s hard to find a film if it has been misfiled!). First wait a few hours to see if a patron is simply using the film you want. But if some time goes by and it doesn’t return to its shelf, speak to the Access Services desk on the floor where your film is missing and they will verify that its missing, then order a copy to be printed from the Vault, which usually takes a day or two to be sent to the Family History Library. On my first trip, that was too long, so I didn’t get to view the film, but this most recent trip I discovered the missing film early enough for it to be ordered and shipped in time. If there’s not enough time, you can also request a free photocopy of the record you need from the FamilySearch Photoduplication Service (which has a several-month turnaround time).

7. Prepare for the unexpected and occasional need for “record triage”. Some discoveries will lead to new findings that you may wish to take advantage of while you are still visiting FHL. Did a deed index provide you with references to land records of your ancestors that you now need to look up the microfilms numbers for? Did a vital record provide you with unknown parents who you can now try to find additional documentation for? Plan on sparing a bit of time to deal with these new discoveries. But also be prepared to perform “record triage” if necessary – after all there are so many records, but so little time! One of the more frustrating situations we came across was when a record had been listed in a FamilySearch database with the microfilm number, but no volume/page/certificate number. Sometimes the record’s location on the microfilm was obvious if it was arranged chronologically, but in some cases there was little in the way of an organization scheme on the film and it could be frustrating to know the record existed SOMEWHERE on the film yet not be able to find it. If this happens to you and the record is very crucial to your research, by all means spend as much time as you need to find it. But if time is slipping away, know when to put on the brakes, move onto finding the next record on your list, and hope that FamilySearch digitizes that undiscovered record soon, since they have ambitious plans to digitize ALL of their microfilms within the next decade (which might just make these tips obsolete by then!).

8. Keep an eye out for the electric microfilm readers amidst a sea of hand-crank microfilm readers. This is a personal preference of mine, but I love the speed and efficiency of the electric microfilm readers. The majority of FHL readers are Northwest Microfilm Inc. 2020 model mechanical hand-crank readers which are lovely, but can make you feel like Popeye with one large arm muscle by the end of the week. So keep an eye out for the electric Gideon model readers, which sometimes are right on the main reader aisles (and usually very popular), but on some floors are tucked away at the back for the savvy researcher to find. On our first trip, we used handcrank readers the first day, then  found and switched to electric readers on the second day. My husband, who had never used microfilms before, said of the smoother electric readers: Where have these been all my life!?

9. Whether visiting for a weekend or a week, make time to play! Before too many visions of microfilmed images or book papercuts start whizzing by in your dreams, make sure to have some fun outside of the library, too! FHL is located right next to the beautiful Temple Square which has outstanding architecture, a reflecting pool, and year-round gardens – and it the home of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. FHL is in walking distance of the City Creek Center and Gateway Mall for shopping and lots of restaurant options. With a cab or rented car (or long hike), go see nearby Ensign Peak for stunning views of the city or some of the city’s excellent museums or civic centers with live performances. For our first visit we flew, but the second time around we drove a VERY long day, following the Oregon Trail from Washington to Utah (which was fantastically historic!), so we took a day trip out to the beautiful Antelope Island in the middle of the Great Salt Lake and saw the wild buffalo and antelope herds there.







10. Optional: Bring a research buddy! Having an extra set of hands can be a BIG help, genealogy enthusiast or no! My techie husband who had never researched before claimed by the end of the first trip that he found slowly searching for names in old handwriting on microfilms to be meditative – and I appreciated every second of his zen-like assistance. Or if your research buddy comes along to do THEIR research, it is still nice to have a person to sit next to at a film reader, table, or computer to compare the occasional notes, have a second set of eyes look at a questionable record or handwriting, and share in the fun of the experience.


11. Organize your microfilm list for maximum efficiency. Once you have come up with your complete microfilm list, I used this system to divide them up: First, in a Word file, itemize and divide the films by floor location (Main Floor = Canada Books, 2nd Floor = US/Canada films, 3rd floor = US Books, Basement 1= International, Basement 2 = British Isles). Then, organize your list in numerical order, since the films are physically ordered numerically. The microfilm shelves are arranged and numbered with seven digits, such as: 0,000,000. So a reference to film 101101 in the catalog will be labeled as 0,101,101 on the shelf. Make sure to note in your list if a film has numerous item numbers – a few times we were baffled when a record was not where it was supposed to be, only to realize it was several item numbers down in the film. You can further subdivide this list into groupings of five, since you are allowed to grab five films at a time and bring them to your microfilm reader. And I made sure to flag the “must-copies” versus the “if there’s time” records or films to help prioritize records if time ran short. And if you do bring a research buddy, make sure to print out two copies of the list and from time to time compare notes on your progress.




Did you find this advice helpful? What are your favorite tips for a FHL visit?

13 thoughts on “Tuesday’s Tip: Top Ten Tips for Visiting the Family History Library

  1. Thanks so much for this helpful advice! I’m planning my first trip to the FHL in January and appreciate your insight on how to get organized and make the best use of time. I’m sure I will be referring to your list more than a few times as I prepare!

  2. I’m on my way to FHL Thursday this week. I’ve been once before. I, like you flew down the first time. This time I’m driving. I’m taking my time and visiting relatives on the way down. Thanks for the tips. I guess I’m as ready as I’m going to be.

  3. Great find! I was so excited when I saw the lists for births since my family also comes from san donato. Sadly there were no DeRubeis in the listing but I’ll keep researching!

  4. Great tips, but I would add that you should not wait until you think you are ready, or you have enough documented, or you think you’ve exhausted all the resources you can obtain locally. That might never happen, so I say just GO! I know I looked at books that I could have looked at in my local library, but I also got to look at plenty of things I could only look at there. You’ll learn a lot and have fun, so just go! I haven’t been back since my first trip in 2007, but I’ve been adding to my list of things to pull when I get there, so I think maybe next year I’ll go back.

  5. I was going to SLC once a year for about 5 years, but my health kept me away for the past two years. Not sure how I will feel in May (but I have 6 months to be on the mend) so that’s what I’m planning for. I was hoping my daughter would go with me, but, she’s not able to get the time off work, but my husband said he’d go with me (I was a little apprehensive until I read your article, he’s not a genealogist, but then again, neither were my parents and I got them doing some research with me a few years back). Since it has been awhile since I’ve been to the FHL, I was glad to happen across your article to get me in the planning mode. Great article!

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