January 24, 2012

Tips for First-Time Family History Library Visitors

Are you planning your first research trip to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City in conjunction with RootsTech? Wondering what’s the best way to prepare for it? I was in your shoes last year before I went to SLIG (the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy). Unfortunately, I’m not going to make it to either SLIG or RootsTech this year (and for the record, I’m very jealous of those that of you that are!). But I vividly remember what it was like walking into the FHL for the first time, feeling a mix of awe and trepidation and thinking, “Holy schmoly! What have I gotten myself into?” So I’ve pulled together some tips that I hope will help you.

A natural place to start is “Tips for Visiting the Library” on the FamilySearch website. In addition, Kimberly Powell has written an excellent article titled “Research at the Family History Library” on About.com. DearMyrtle offers her thoughts in “Visiting the FHLibrary in Salt Lake City.” Jill Ball recorded her impressions of her first visit on Geniaus, providing some great pictures to boot. Likewise, Randy Seaver recalled his first visit in this post on Genea-Musings. Last but certainly not least, Janet Hovorka just came out with a Quick Insider’s Guide to Salt Lake City, which is available as a free PDF download. As you read them, you’ll notice a few common threads. One thing they all recommend is that you do some prep work at home before walking in the door of the FHL.
But how, exactly, do you do that? Here’s an easy method for determining what you want to do and keeping track of your results:
  • Go the FamilySearch Library Catalog and select “Place Names” (note: I used the old search last year, which is still available; the search techniques are similar)
  • Enter the name of the town or county your ancestors lived in (omit the actual word county) along with the state, province, or nation
  • Choose what you want to look at from the drop-down menu (cemeteries, vital records, etc.)
  • Click on a title to see a particular resource. When you find one you want to check, print out a copy (on old search, click on “View Film Notes” first)
  • Write a note about who or what you want to look for right there on the print-out, along with any pertinent details (i.e., “Look for John Eberhard/Mary Comfort marriage in Lehigh Co. around Dec. 1891”). If there’s more than one microfilm listed, circle the one you need to get from the drawer. I used red ink so I could always see at a glance what I was looking for.
  • Following the same technique, search by “Last Names” on the catalog home page to identify sources of interest for your surnames
  • Organize your papers by surname or locality, however it makes sense to you. It’s best to separate book sources, microfilm sources, and international sources, because they’re on different floors of the library.
  • Make a master list of your priority items—those sources you want to be sure to look at. Books should be a priority, because you can’t check them out from your local Family History Center. Use this list as a reminder once you’re there.
  • Take plenty of blank research logs to record your results and sources (here's one I like from Duane Bailey). I used one research log per family but also continued to take notes right on my printouts (i.e., “found in vol. 16, p. 172, film #xxxxxxx” or “checked 1890-1892, no record found”)
  • Fill a tote bag with mechanical pencils, pens, a notepad, paper clips, glasses, a small magnifier, a digital camera, a flash drive, money, a snack (trust me, you’ll get hungry), and whatever else you need to be comfortable for a long day or evening at the library.
  • Make sure you have a portable copy of your genealogy database on a laptop, tablet, smartphone, or printed pedigree chart and family group sheets. You don’t want to get there and waste time duplicating what you already have or wondering how William Whatever fits into your tree. 
That’s it. Don’t worry about the details. The volunteers at the FHL will be more than happy to answer all the questions you’re afraid to ask, like where to find things, how to work the printers and scanners, and where the snack room is. You’ll be in good hands.

My first visit to the FHL was both exhilarating and exhausting. I made some great discoveries—one of which I wrote about in “Striking Gold in Salt Lake City”—and found a lot of information that deepened my understanding of my ancestors. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Here’s hoping that your first visit will be everything you dreamed of!

Photo from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints


  1. Thanks for the mention, Shelley.
    I can't wait to hit the FHL again this weekend.

    1. Anytime, Jill. Hope you have a good time and find lots of material.

  2. Great post, Shelley. I particularly second the recommendation to write down the specifics of what you are looking for - you think you'll remember but with so much hunting going on, it's easy to forget.

    I just had a fantasy -- what if we could click a button on a catalog entry and have it automatically formatted into an entry on a research log?

    Roots Magic (v5) has an interesting new Research Log tool - it turns items from your to-do list into entries on a log associated with that person, couple or family.

    1. That's a cool fantasy, Malissa. And that Research Log tool in Roots Magic 5 sounds very handy. It would make getting ready for a research trip easier. I use a Mac but I might try getting Roots Magic to run on my system with Crossover. Hearing about that tool gives me another incentive to try it. Thanks for the info!

  3. Thanks for the tips, Shelley. I'd hoped I was ready to hit the ground running and am happy to see that I've done most everything you suggest.

    1. Linda, I can't wait to hear about your experiences and what you find. You'll have to keep us posted on the methods you used to do this as a paperless research trip. Enjoy your time in SLC and happy hunting!


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