Thursday, May 25, 2017

Sweet Spots: Using Books on FamilySearch

Genealogists are cheapskates. Let's not deny it. We sort of have to be. Family history isn't a cheap hobby, after all. Research trips, website subscriptions, FOIA requests, research fees, gas money, copies, postage, it can add up in a hurry. If you're not careful, you'll end up eating Ramen noodles in front of a computer screen at 3 a.m. And don't even get me started on the economy of wearing pants. A major factor for most decisions to leave the house for my generation, in addition to cost versus reward, is how long we have to be wearing pants.

What I hear every time there's a genealogy event that doesn't include pajamas.
I can't be the only one waiting for this to be a thing.

I've come a little way from paying for a single month of once a year with money I found in the couch. But that's only because of the FamilySearch partnerships. And no one really outgrows getting free records access, do they?

Which is why I wanted to point out some free resources that aren't as well known on FamilySearch. This has nothing to do with their record collections. Instead, I want to talk about how you can access a growing number of books from the Family History Library. Why fly or drive to Salt Lake City when the information you need could be right at your fingertips without you knowing it, right?

Using FamilySearch Books

To navigate to the Books section, go to, hover over the the Search tab, and click on the Book menu.

A simple search box will appear, as well as a list of repositories whose books are also included in the collection. So before you plan a trip to the Allen County Public Library, check to see if the resource you need is available through this portal. I don't know about y'all, but I know I don't want to pay money, put on pants, and fly on a plane if I don't have to.

If this isn't the best part of your day, are you really a genealogist?

Don't bother with the simple search box. I mean, I suppose you can. But they make the Advanced Search so easy to find, you might as well use it.

You basically get two search fields, and you can have them search whichever way you like. I personally prefer Full Text. It's also a good idea to set the middle box to OR (not displayed below, but trust me.) I'll usually put a county name in one and a surname in the other. I've gotten some great results that way. This of course is a much easier approach with unique county names, as my example is. I'm pretty sure no other place on earth is called Pittsylvania. Let's look for some Towlers.

Scroll down to see your results. I know that sounds dumb to say, but these search boxes take up the whole screen and the results appear underneath them.

Now some things that you click on will open fine and dandy. If you're lucky, there's no limit to the things you can find.  If you're lazy like me and you want to use the Ctrl+F function to search the book for names, you have to download it first. I don't know why, but it doesn't work in browser, even though all of the books have been OCRed. You download them by putting your cursor inside the viewing window, and click the download icon.

For Pittsylvania County alone, there are several books with vital statistics in them. Most of them are indexes of vital records from the county courthouse. Some of them are transcriptions of unique documents, like those who took the Oath of Allegiance during the American Revolution in 1777. I find that looking by geographic areas (cities, states, provinces, regions, countries) is the best way to get a broad sense of what's available.

If you're lucky, you may even find something that fills in a record gap for your community of interest. I know for Pittsylvania County in particular, Dr. Reuben W. Bennett kept private records of births and marriages that predate official county records. They're some of the only vital records I've ever seen that predate 1853. His register was transcribed and published in the William and Mary Quarterly, and is available to view through this portal. (Albeit, it's much easier to view it for free on JSTOR here.)  And I had no idea it existed until I got curious and started poking around in the online books on FamilySearch.

Inevitably, you're going to run into a particular error message. You'll click on an item in your search results, it says you don't have the rights to access it. What does that mean? Where is the book and why can't you see it? There's a lot of confusion about what this means and why it happens, so I thought I'd talk about it.

The main factor at play here is ownership. Because many of the books and periodicals being included in the online collection are under copyright, they have to get a little creative in how they allow people to access them. Restricting how many people can access the digital copy is legally necessary to respect authorial and repository ownership, as mandated by laws as they currently exist.

Additionally, many of the materials are not owned by the Family History Library. The repositories that own them can stipulate other conditions under which they may be used. The result is that some of the more promising results on your list can only be accessed on-site at the Family History Library, in their partner libraries, or at a local family history center. You cannot use them from your home internet connection.

What are Family History Centers?

As many of y'all may or may not know, FamilySearch is the family history arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons don't play around when it comes to genealogy. Most of our churches have entire rooms set up for doing genealogy. Other regions have standalone buildings dedicated to that purpose. In the days before the internet, these centers were largely used to distribute and use microfilm from the Family History Library. Today, they provide computer and internet access for genealogy to anyone who doesn't have it. They also provide free access to and other paid subscription sites. They've now become the logical access point for many digital record collections and materials that otherwise couldn't be distributed.

To find your local family history center, use the Locator utility. You can input your city, and it will show you the closest family history center to you. You may have multiple options to choose from. You'll have a map that you can poke around on to decide which one best meets your needs. Check their hours of operation, and any closures they have scheduled. The centers are run entirely by volunteers, so it's always a good idea to call ahead and let them know when you plan to visit. Because they also teach classes to various groups, you may want to take advantage of any events they have going on, or schedule your trip around them. The address and phone number for each center is provided via the locator.

The centers are completely free to the public. I recommend preparing a visit like you would any other research trip. Have specific records and books in mind you intend to use, and budget your time accordingly. I'll even make a list or email myself links to different record sets, so I can open them in-browser at the Family History Center. Anything that saves me this much time and money is something I can live with.

To anyone who has ever put on pants to do genealogy, I salute you!

Even if it does mean I still have to wear real clothes and leave my house. Some things are just worth putting on pants for.