Step by Step Guide to Accessing Browse-only Records on FamilySearch

In my monthly contribution to the Slave Name Roll Project a few days ago, the content of the record I was writing about was more important than the steps I took to find the record featured in the post Slave Name Roll Project: RELEASING: William, Mary, and Orange.

I prompted my readers to ask me if they were interested in how I found the browse-only records on FamilySearch. Several took me up on the offer to explain how I found this particular record. One suggested I write an entire article talking about some of the shortcuts and easier ways I have learned to search the non-indexed records.

Your post – coupled with the recent announcement that Family Search is discontinuing microfilm distribution – is a good reminder for all genealogists to keep a close eye on the expanding online collections of digitized records. ~ Michael Dyer of Family Sleuther

I spend hours working with the browse-only records at FamilySearch. I also remember the days when I thought I would never get the hang of working with their immense collections. I’m more experienced today and it’s easier for me to find my way around the Library. Yes, I think of the FamilySearch site as a library with a librarian who will answer my questions and a catalog for helping me find the collections or books I’m looking for.

What will you find in the library?

Family history researchers have different levels of experience. A beginner may not get much further than the front desk and feel lost.

FamilySearch has changed and grown since I first began using the FREE site. I’ve gone from using the Search Historical Records box (as a beginner and, even now, as a more experienced researcher) to consulting the Find a Collection to doing geographical research with the Research By Location tool.

Click on Browse all published collections under Find a Collection to see a list of 2237 collections. A collection with a camera icon and the words Browse images in the Records column tell you it is BROWSE-ONLY and not indexed. The collections with a camera icon and the number of records available are indexed and linked to images. The collections with a camera with a rectangle are indexed on FamilySearch but the image will be found on another site which may be free or subscription.

Filter the list by searching for words in the name of the collection or choosing a place, time period, and/or type of collection. At the very bottom on the left under Collections, there is a little box you can check to view only collections with images.

Here I filtered the names of the collections with West Virginia in the title and shortened the list to ten collections. In this list I don’t see Vital statistics, 1853-1860 of West Virginia, the database where I found birth records of two slaves of Wilson M. DEMPSEY born in 1855 and 1857 in Fayette County, (West) Virginia.

The Genealogy Girl, Amberly Beck, mentioned in a comment on one of my posts awhile back that FamilySearch is adding browse-only collections at a faster pace. They may not be showing up in the Historical Record Collections list – but they are being added to the catalog.

Let’s click back to the front desk and see if the librarian is available.

The FamilySearch Wiki, in my opinion, is not used often enough by researchers. It is the first place you should look to learn about genealogy research in different areas. I think of the FamilySearch Wiki as the librarian who is there to help – if you ask.

What is the Wiki?
Welcome to the Wiki! The Wiki is a free, online genealogical guide, with links to genealogy databases, images of records, and instructions on how to search for your ancestors. ~ from the FamilySearch Wiki Overview
We’ve taken a short tour of the front desk and seen where the librarian works. Before we check out the catalog, we need to know what we’ll be searching for.
“West Virginia Births and Christenings, 1853-1928,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:X5PK-X25 : 12 December 2014), William Dempsey, 11 Feb 1857; citing Meadow Fork, Fayette, Virginia, reference ; FHL microfilm 34,485.

This is the indexed information from the birth record of William born in 1857. When FamilySearch shows a record with the camera icon and notation that no image is available, this means there is no image attached to the indexed material. However, the film may be browse-only and available online.

Remember the days when you could do a Request for Photo Duplication on FamilySearch?

We were all disappointed when this service was discontinued. But wait! If they could look up the record and send it to us, couldn’t we do our own lookup in the collections of browse-only records – if they are online?

Let’s try looking for the 1857 birth record in the search result above. The GS Film Number or FHL microfilm is 34485.

This is where the catalog comes into play.

Click on Search and then Catalog on the drop-down menu on the main page of FamilySearch.

Under Search for: click on Film/Fiche Number to open the box and fill in the FHL number 34485. Click on the Search button.

This takes you to Vital statistics, 1853-1860 of West Virginia. Click on the link for more information.

Under Notes you will see this collection is a group of records held at the Virginia State Library in Richmond, Virginia. Scroll down to see the 10 films listed. Search for the number in the Film/DGS column.

The magnifying glass indicates this collection is indexed and searchable. We already knew this as the indexed record was found using Search Historical Records tool. The camera icon means the collection is available for viewing. If it were microfilm which has not been digitized you would see a film icon. To browse the records, click on the camera next to film #34485 for Calhoun – Hampshire counties.

This is where many people are overwhelmed as they think they need to click through hundreds of images to find what they are looking for.

On the left side is the tool to zoom in and out and view single or all images. Start with the filmstrip view instead of single images. When records are filmed they do it in a logical order. This is Calhoun – Hampshire counties and, in alphabetical order, these counties would be Calhoun – Clay – Doddridge – Fayette – Gilmer – Grant – Greenbrier – Hampshire.

Tip: If you don’t know the names of the counties, go to the Wiki, search for the state or use the interactive map to get to the state level or county level.

As you scroll down you will notice there are images that look like title pages of books (green arrows). If you click on one of these you will see the title, West Virginia Vital Statistics, and below in very light typewriting, the name of the county. In this collection, you need to zoom in as close as possible to read it. But since you know Fayette is the 4th county in the batch you can go to 4th title image.

Fayette starts on image 107 and goes to 159 as image 160 is the next West Virginia Vital Statistics cover sheet. The collection is for the time period 1853-1860 and we are looking for a birth record for the year 1857. There are a little over 50 images for Fayette County.

How were birth, marriage, and death registers kept at this time? Did they have a register only for births or were the BMD records kept together by year? Look at the small images. Some of the pages are not filled with writing. These could be the last pages of a year’s entries. Getting familiar with the record keeping of the time and place makes it much easier to jump through the images to find records instead of looking at every single image.

Vital statistics, 1853-1860 of West Virginia; Film # 007499353; Calhoun – Hampshire counties; image 120 of 554. (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QSQ-G9Z5-FZV3?i=119&cat=308753 : accessed 10 June 2017)

Once you’ve found the record, an important step needs to be performed. You want to save the record AND you want to be able to find it again WITHOUT having to go through all the steps mentioned above.

FamilySearch usually makes this easy to do. Click on Information, scroll down to Citation, copy/paste, and save in your usual manner (in your genealogy software, on the image, in Evernote with the image). In this case, we see No citation is available. This means you need to write your own source citation, similar to the caption of the image above. You want to include the name of the collection, film # and batch name, and image # just in case the URL (which you also want to save) is no longer accessible.

Another example of browse-only records

Instead of using an FHL film number to access a record, you can search by location.

Go to the catalog, in the Place box begin typing West Virginia (or any location you are interested in). The place name is always from largest to smallest: Country, State, County.

You can refine your search by changing the place, for example from state to a specific county in the state, in the box at left. Or, on the right, you can click on Places within….

to get a list of the counties. I want to find a bond taken out by Augustus BLAKE of Fayette County in the 1880s. Clicking on Fayette opens up a list of all collections for the county. Court records should include bonds. Click to open list of all available records.

Bonds, 1870-1926 matches the type of record and the period for the record we are looking for.

Scroll down the page to see if collections are available to browse or search.

Under Note check for the 1880s time period which would be in Vol. 1 1870-1887 or Vol. 2-3 1887-1900. We’ll try the first batch: Film #584751 Item 3. If you’ve browsed through microfilm you know they continue filming collections back to back. Because of this the mention of Item 3 is important for the search.

This is the beginning of the film starting with Item #1. We scroll down to the next black image.

There is a black image with End, an image with the title of the next item, and then a black image with Begin. Scroll to next black image.

Here we see the end of Item #2, info and beginning of Item #3. You can see it is a book and the index is on the front pages. If they aren’t at the front, you’d scroll to the end of the item and check the back of the book for the index.

Tip: There are some collections, for example, Wills where the index to all books in one section.

Item #3 is Releases and Official Bonds 1870-1887 Vol. 1. We are also in the correct location: Fayette County, West Virginia.

The first page of the index had several Blake individuals including the one we are looking for. The bond is indexed as being on page 210. Click on one of the first pages of the batch to see where the page numbers are located and if both left and right pages are numbered or counted.

In this case, each page in the ledger has a page number in the upper corner. Jump forward about 100 images by changing the number in the little box at the top left of the image from 129 to 229.

Image 229 was for pages 178 and 179. We are 32 pages or 16 images away from page 210. Go to image 245 (229+16) to get to page 210 which has the guardian bond taken out by Augustus BLAKE in 1886.

Click the Information tab on the bottom left, grab the top edge and pull it up to expand. We see the entire film is made up of four items. As was the case in the previous record searched for, there is no citation available.

An example of European browse-only records

In November 2015 FamilySearch started using the new viewer with the small images. I wrote an article, The New FamilySearch – I’m loving it! on how I locate the browse-only records in the Luxembourg collections.

Tip: European civil records for births, marriages, and deaths have an index at the end of each year. Instead of browsing through the records searching for the yearly index, check the tables décennales or TD. These are lists of BMD for an entire decade and also know as the 10-year index.

In the first two examples for West Virginia records the citations were not available. Don’t let this keep you from working with the browse-only records. This is not the norm. In The New FamilySearch – I’m loving it!  you will see the source citations are found in the Information tab in the lower left of the window.

If you’ve never had much luck finding non-indexed records on FamilySearch, I hope these steps and tips will help you become a successful browse-only researcher on the FamilySearch site.

P.S. thegenealogygirl left a comment below with another useful tip!

© 2017, copyright Cathy Meder-Dempsey. All rights reserved.

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Author: Cathy Meder-Dempsey

As a military brat I've lived in Georgia, France, Idaho, West Virginia, Spain, South Carolina, Texas, and Luxembourg. Married 36 years with two grown children. When I’m not doing genealogy, I spend time riding my racing bike with my husband through the wonderful countryside in Luxembourg and surrounding countries.

18 thoughts on “Step by Step Guide to Accessing Browse-only Records on FamilySearch”

  1. Thanks Cathy, This was a particularly useful post. Just by overestimating the number of images to get to the example you were using on Augustus Blake, I landed on the page where Melvina Blake, widow of my 4x grandfather John Blake, was appointed adminstratrix for her deceased husband’s estate. John’s death year was previously unknown. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post Cathy! I would add one tip. When records have multiple indexes for the same record (sometimes up to 3), look at all three. FS has been slowly attaching images but only to one of the available indexed records. If none of them have the image, carefully check the information in the index next to the film number on each index. Often there will be some sort of reference notation that will help you navigate the digitized film more quickly (again each indexed version may have more or less info). This might be a certificate number, page number, entry number, etc. If there are numbers but the notations don’t tell you what the numbers are for, spend a minute going image by image trying to figure out the pattern and you can usually determine what those numbers represent and again, get through the digitized film faster.

    FamilySearch is working at the fastest pace I have ever seen. I can’t keep up with the new records coming available that I am interested in. It’s a great time to be a genealogist!

    And, if anyone reading this isn’t aware, FamilySearch is funded by donations from LDS church members, but they also take donations from anyone interested in supporting their great preservation work. Even a few dollars can help get hundreds of records digitized. This is possible because LDS church members volunteer as missionaries to go to places all over the world and digitize records. They pay their own way and the cost to the church is the camera equipment. If you are interested in learning more about this, you can read my post here: Help Preserve Records – 4 Pennies At a Time

    I hope you don’t mind me sharing that Cathy. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is such a handy guide! I’m passing it along to some friends who were asking today about finding records on Family Search. My explanation about browsing the unindexed images certainly didn’t do it justice. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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