Monday, April 14, 2014

FamilySearch Needs to Make it Easier to Find "Browse Images" Collections

In the past ten days, I've done a workshop and a research group session on finding records on FamilySearch at my local Chula Vista Genealogical Society, and over the past two years have made presentations about searching FamilySearch historical records all over Southern California, but many people I share with are perplexed by browsable collections - those not indexed yet - and need more help finding them and using them.  Therefore, I know that users in the genealogy world need more help in finding and using them.

Once the concept is explained, it becomes understandable to them, but the problem is that it is really difficult to find those collections that are not indexed.  FamilySearch calls them "Browse Images" collections.

I think that FamilySearch needs to make it easier to find all of the historical record collections, and provide some directions on how to use them.  Until that happens, the "Browse Images" records will be underutilized.  Which is sad, because they are the "best" records, in my humble opinion.

I, and others, call these "Browse Images" collections "Digital Microfilm," because that is what they are.  In most cases, the images have been digitized from Family History Library microfilm, and there are links  to the specific digital collections in the Family History Library Catalog.

Here is how a typical online researcher searching for information about their surname or a specific ancestor finds the "Browse Images" collection:

1)  Go to the FamilySearch home page (

2)  To find historical record collections, the user has to click on the "Search" button (in blue at bottom) or link (above the image) to get to the "Search" page ( (two screens below, some overlap):

I will bet that 90% to 95% of ALL FamilySearch users start their searches from the Search page above, and just enter the names, and then get millions of matches in some order.

3)  If the user clicks on the links (in blue to the left of the world map at the bottom of the web page), they will see a series of links:

Those links lead to the list of record collections.  The user can select any one of the region links and only see historical record collections for those regions.

4)  If the user selects the "Browse all published collections" link, then they can see the list of ALL record collections available.  Here is today's web page for Historical Record Collections (

As you can see, it is an alphabetical list.  There are "Filters" for different regions, dates, and record types.

How can the user find records for a specific topic - whether it's a country, state, or record type?

5)  Do you see the "Filter by collection name" search field at the top of the left-hand column?  Here it is enlarged:

6)  For example, if I want to see only records for, New York" I can put my cursor in the "Collection name" field above and the screen changes to reflect only New York records (as shown below):

Note that I didn't finish typing "york" and it showed me records with the two words "new" and "yor."

If I only search for "york" I might get some records for Yorkshire or York County.

7)  Do you see the "Browse Images" links on the Historical Record Collections screens above?  Those are the collections that not yet indexed by FamilySearch Indexing volunteers.  The "Browse Images" collections are more than one half of all of the historical record collections available on FamilySearch.  Some indexed record collections have images also.  You can tell which collections have images by looking for the camera icon to the left of the collection name.

Many of the "Browse Images" are record collections with original source material - town, vital, church, tax, land, probate and other records - that will help you solve your research challenges.  I really think that many difficult research challenges will be solved once users are familiar with browsing the image collections for their ancestors.  That task is a subject for each record type and collection.

8)  How could FamilySearch make it easier for users to access these "Browse Images" collections?

I think that there are two ways:

a)  Add a link on the Home page (first image above) and the "Search" page (second image above) for "Records" that goes directly to the Historical Record Collections page (  Note that on the "Search" page, the "Records" link goes to the "Search" page, not to the list of Historical Record Collections.  It should go to the "Records" list.

b)  Add links to video tutorials on how to search for the "Browse Images" collections on the Search page with appropriate description so that users actually will try to use them.  They also need links to video tutorials on how to use specific collections to find records for a person (e.g., New York Probate Records").

Using a specific "Browse images" collection is difficult at first - it has many small steps with lots of detail. It isn't a simple "look it up, there I found it, I'll attach it to my tree person, I'm done!" exercise.

Usually, the user has to find an index, look names up in the index, note the names and volume/page numbers, then find the volume of interest, search for the specific page, capture the page image, and read the page image carefully.

9)  My own work-around right now is that I start my searches on the Historical Record Collections page -  Nearly all of my searches these days are for specific people in specific locations in "Browse Images" collections, so a "New York" search really works well for me.

10)  FamilySearch is an amazing website with much unique and useful online content.  Every researcher needs to learn how to use it effectively, and teach others how to use it effectively for their research work.  And it's FREE!  

At present, it is difficult for users to find FamilySearch historical record collections without indexes.  The website should be improved to make it easier to find and use these "Browse Image" collections.

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Copyright (c) 2014, Randall J. Seaver


Lisa S. Gorrell said...

Your step number 9 is exactly what I have done as well. My starting place is bookmarked.

I so rarely just type in a name in the search box but rather search or browse in specific database or collections.

You have made a very good argument for FamilySearch to update their main page. What's the point of putting all of these images online if no one knows they are there!

Geolover said...

Randy, yay for your point here, and I like your recommendations. It should be a whole lot easier to get a list of collections before wasting search time on the 15% or so of the database that is indexed.

A minor issue in your point #7, where you say "Some indexed record collections have images also. You can tell which collections have images by looking for the camera icon to the left of the collection name."

The camera icon indicates an image ~somewhere~: could be on or another commercial partner, could be in the WV State Archives site. FamilySearch has been begged for years to indicate at least when the images are off-site, and preferably also when they are on a subscription-only site.

Like the commercial subscription sites, FamilySearch has taken to aggregating indexes from other sites. Some find this helpful, some are just annoyed at the lack of clarity.

Oh, yeah, and they **could** indicate on the search pages that wild-card characters can be used and what they do. This also is a years-old request.

Saskey said...


I have found "Browse Images" for areas of interest, but I find it a bit daunting beyond the "Browse through 1,459,098 images" page (with no index).

Unknown said...

Thank you for reminding me about the "Browse Images" Collections. I have looked through them for will records in TN in the past; but I took a gander this morning and looked through the California Birth records posted for Los Angeles (no small task). After 500 images, I found my mother's birth certificate! The records are in certificate order (not necessarily birth date as they are returned on different days.) No new information - but it confirms she was born at home.

-A fellow San Diego County researcher

Unknown said...

Randy, first, Happy Blogaversary! Enjoy reading your posts and get so much out of them.

FS is a bit clunky and yes could be improved. I did learn to use the filters and probably used a few more clicks than you. New Orleans didn't return much at all, but clicking US records, then Louisiana got me there. I found my 2GGrandmother's Succession, all 280 images and 463Mbs of data of it in the collection. I'm still transcribing it page by page and will be for a while.

I went back and looked again for another record that should be there. I hadn't thought about it as being digital microfilm, but the left-right arrows for the images are like cranking the microfilm forward and backward. You just have to take a SWAG at an image number and review for a case number or familiar name. It isn't a smooth process, but the reward is worth it. That's what I tell myself, as file number 116 is missing between 115 and 117, and I have to think creatively to find where it might be hiding in plain sight!

I hope your seminar participants will keep trying.
Kathi Mayor
Bogalusa, LA