Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Digital Microfilm -- Browse Probate Record Collections on FamilySearch

We had our monthly CVGS Computer Group session in the Computer Lab at the library today, led by my colleague, Shirley Becker.  Genea-Musings reader Ginger from Ohio was there - thanks for coming, I hope you learned something.

This was a very frustrating session for many of the attendees.  The topic was FamilySearch Browse Only record collections, with the goal of introducing the attendees to finding ancestral records without a search engine.

Shirley got the students to go to FamilySearch, find a state with Probate Records, and then follow directions in an article created by Robert Ragan of Treasure Maps fame (which I can't find online now) that described how to search the Browse Only collections.  Then...most of the attendees had comments like:

*  "Where are the search fields?"

*  "Do they expect me to look through 14 million images?"

*  "How do I know which "book" to search?"

*  "How do I find my ancestor's will?"

*  "How do I make the record image larger?"

There is no search field to magically make a will or other record appear on your computer screen when you're in a FamilySearch Browse only record collection. 

I helped two students understand the basic process (County > Index > Record Book > Record), and we searched New York probate indexes and will books for records, and were successful.

My guess is that 90 to 95% of all researchers are completely lost when faced with a Browse Only collection on FamilySearch.

I wrote a number of blog posts about this process for New York and Pennsylvania probate records in recent years, including:

*  Step-by-Step Process for Accessing and Finding New York Probate Records on FamilySearch (posted 16 April 2014)

*  Finding Genealogy Gems in the New York Probate Records on FamilySearch (8 April 2014)

*  Finding James Vaux Probate Records in Erie County, New York (5 July 2012).

I've done similar searches in Pennsylvania for:

*  Pennsylvania Probate Records on FamilySearch! (27 June 2012)

*  Finding Daniel Spangler's Probate Records on FamilySearch - the Russell Index System (15 October 2012)

Think of this process as "digital microfilm."  You have to manually search for the information you seek.  Rather than obtaining a series of microfilms (an Index, a Record Book, another Record Book, etc.), you do it online on FamilySearch; for FREE, in your pajamas.  Rather than turning a microfilm crank, you can advance image by image or by guessing an image number to zero in on the desired page.  And guessing again.  

 The process is fairly complex, but it can be boiled down to County > Volume List > Index > Record Book > Record Image (using one of my New York searches below):

1)  County

*  Know the State and County where your target person was a resident with property.

*  Go to the probate or estate collection for the target State [Note: not every state has a collection of this type yet.]

*  Use the "Browse xx,yyy,zzz images" link to see the County "Waypoints."

2)  Volume List:

*  Go to the correct County and note the list of "Volumes" of record books that are available.

3)  Index

*  On the County "Volume list" above, look for a "book" with an Index for probate records - another "Waypoint."  There may be more than one!  Think of this as the list of "digital microfilm" available for that county.

*  Search the Index for your target person.  The indexing may have a unique system - every one seems to be different.  You can jump to another image number using the field at the top of the screen.  You usually have to guess an image number and guess again until you find the right page.

*  If you find an Index item for your target, write down the column headings and the column information.

4)  Record Book

*  Go back to the "book" Index list of "Waypoints," and find the correct "record book" for the record you want to find.  

*  In the "record book," you have to guess an image number and then iterate until you find the right page.  Note that "page number" in the Index usually does not equal "image number" in the record collection.  Most of these digitized record books have two pages per image, and many "record books" contain more than one volume of records.

*  Be sure to check succeeding images in the "record book" - there may be more than one image for the record.  Some probate files can have dozens of record images.  

5)  Record Image

*  When you find the desired record for your target person, note the database name, the "bread crumb" trail to find the record, the image number, the volume number, the page number, and the specific item found.  

*  Download the record image to your computer and rename the file so that you can find it in your computer file system.  Cut and paste it into your digital file folder system (you do have one, don't you?).

It IS complex, isn't it?  

Please note that not every probate record in every county in every state was microfilmed, or has been digitized.  But about 30 states now have Probate record collections like New York's and Pennsylvania on FamilySearch.  These are often original source records (or derivative source records from court clerk transcripts) and are very helpful to determine death dates, relationships, real and personal property, and more.  

There are really three ways to find probate and land records in a distant state and county:

*  Go to the County of interest and search the musty books and estate files, and perhaps be allowed to take a photograph or obtain a photocopy.

*  Use Family History Library microfilm at the FHL or FHC (after renting the film)  to find records, and either take a photograph or a digital image..

*  Use the FamilySearch Browse Only collections - "digital microfilm" - to obtain a digital image.

I really appreciate the convenience, the organization, and the ability to download the records from the comfort of home, for FREE!  Every researcher needs to learn how to do this!

Copyright (c) 2015, Randall J. Seaver


Gadget Surplus said...

Thanks for reminding me. Sometimes we become so lax and spoiled with indexed records. And I have ordered the microfilm before remembering to check if it is already online :)

Your instructions were not clear on the first step and I always forget how / where. You might clarify how to get to the image, browse-only records. Not sure your best way but I do a search in records (home page menu selection) and then simply select location on the right to drill down to a smaller territory. The Indexed records appear first followed by the Image only (not indexed) microfilm that you can browse from home. Sometimes the titles are not noticable and we forget to scroll down the long page.

Cassmob (Pauleen) said...

thanks Randy, this will be helpful when (if?) I get to probate records for some of my distant family connections in the U.S.