Friday, April 19, 2013

How I search on FamilySearch - Post 3: Browsing a Specific Record Collection

I had several reader comments on my blog post, Is FamilySearch De-emphasizing Genealogical Research?in my email, and in Google+ and Facebook that indicated the commenters needed help in how to search on  

There are three different ways that I use to search on FamilySearch, and it depends on my search goal and the availability of indexing specific databases:

I will address each of these three ways in a separate blog post.

For Browsing a specific record collection, I start again on the  Historical Record Collections page (

Again, I filtered the over 1,500 collections down to Massachusetts collections (see Post 2), and noticed that some of the collections are "Browse Images."  These collections are NOT INDEXED!

This is why you have to do more than a Global Search for names, locations, dates, relationships, etc.!  A Global Search will not find entries in the "Browse Image" record collections on FamilySearch.

I picked the "Massachusetts, Plymouth County, Probate Records, 1633-1967" record collection to look for "Seaver" or "Sever" entries.  I right-clicked on that collection link, and the collection search page opened in a new Tab:

Since the only way to search this record collection is to Browse, the user has to click on the "Browse through 302,640 images" link.  I did:

The screen above shows the different items in this record collection.  Each Item represents a volume or "book" in the Probate Record collection.  These are called "Waypoints" by FamilySearch - they point the way to the actual records.

There are Dockets by Year Range and alphabetical surname, and then by Probate Case File numbers, and then Probate Court volumes.  The Dockets are indexes for Probate Case File numbers and Probate Court volume/pages, and the Probate Case Files contain images of the original papers in the File.

I chose the "Dockets, 1686-1881 Pra-Sta" item, and saw the first page of this "book:"

I managed to find the page with "Sever" Dockets listed, as shown below:

The Probate Case File number is provided for each person, in addition to the Probate Court volume/page numbers for each document in the Probate Case File.

Every "Browse Image" record collection on FamilySearch contains unique material, and it is often organized in a unique way.  The Waypoints may be to "books," or "volumes," or to "alphabetical surname groups," or some other way to organize the material.  The user has to figure out how to browse the collection by looking for an index, and then figuring out how to find the actual record pages.  

Using these records in a "Browse Images" mode is very similar to using microfilm at a Family History Center...except you browse image by image, or use can type in a target image number.  I call it "digital microfilm."

I don't know what percentage of the FamilySearch record collections is "Browse Image" rather than indexed, but I know that the "Browse Image" contain images of original source material organized by country, state/province, and/or county/city/town/parish.  these are very rich genealogical content - often containing the genealogy gem that you are seeking.  

FamilySearch users need to use these "Browse Image" collections in their research.

My opinion has long been that "When FamilySearch has digitized and displayed rich record collections like probate, land, tax, vital, and other records - even in "Browse Image" form - then genealogists will be able to solve some of their brick wall problems at home in their pajamas."

copyright (c) 2013, Randall J. Seaver


bgwiehle said...

I also use your 3 approaches to using FamilySearches collections. In addition, I use a variation - using another website (usually, but also others) to narrow down location or date or how the name was formatted. Ancestry has different search fields (including exact dates in some databases) but may not have an image. The reverse method (FamilySearch to Ancestry) is also helpful, especially for censuses, where transcriptions may not be the same.

I do have a complaint regarding waypoints at FamilySearch. In some collections, the named waypoints are anomymous "Digital Folder Numbers" and the "View Images in this Collection" link is often removed. These factors makes it difficult to browse a targeted part of a collection unless you already have a name from that section. Also, if the collection is still growing (more digitized images being added), it's impossible to tell what has been completed and what may be missing. Even if you have a microfilm number, there doesn't seem to be any correlation to the "Digital Folder Number".
example: California, County Marriages, 1850-1952
(1,911,081 images indexed, 3,735,146 images in collection, only "Digital Folder Number" as waypoints)

Mariann Regan said...

Dear Randy, I copied all three URLs for you blog posts about FamilySearch. I am very grateful to you! Your explanations are always so completely clear, and these will help me use FamilySearch. It's true that their website is intimidating to me, especially in FamilySearch wiki.

I'm especially interested in SC Wills in the 1700s and 1800s. The last time I tried on FamilySearch wiki, I got the impression I had to join some kind of "South Carolina Pioneer" society for $150 a year before being allowed to look at a will. But using your directions, I'm going to try again soon.

Thanks again!