Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Ordering Films from the Family History Library

I’ve been doing some genealogy work for others and recently ordered some films from the Family History Library in Utah.  When I first began doing family history I went to the local Church of the Latter Day Saints where they had a small library with microfilm readers that was connected with the Family History Library in Utah.  At first I was a bit intimidated by the fact that it was in a church.  The very helpful volunteers were a close knit group who referred to each other as brother and sister.  I used to listen to the hum of their background conversation while immersing myself in an equally foreign world.  Before I worked up the courage to order a film, I looked at Polish films that were in the files.  I remember studying the records written in this strange language and script trying to make sense of them.  I have always retained a memory from when I was a child.  I recall studying a page in a book, a picture of a deer in the upper left corner and typeface that I so wanted to decipher, a moment when I could not yet read.   This was not too dissimilar an experience.

Over time I got bolder and ordered films from the Family History Library in Utah and later began to go to Utah directly.  I poured over those films, gradually finding the birth, marriage and death records of my family.  Polish began to seem like an old friend as I learned the key words to look for as markers.  Then when I hit the mid 1860s the records suddenly changed to Cyrillic Russian and I panicked at this strange language.  A few community ed classes later and Russian too began to feel more familiar. It now seems quite long ago and in fact the library process has changed quite a bit.

On my early visits I used to have flashbacks to my job in college when I worked in the research department of the university library.  Surrounded by microfilm readers, not much had changed many decades later. But change is beginning to happen.  When I wanted to order records this time I discovered that I could only order on-line.  The site required me to register and select a library.  The small one near my home that I had begun with was no longer on the list.  It appeared that they had consolidated resources, perhaps to have a larger presence and more hours at the available libraries.  One of the challenges when I first began my research was that there were quite limited hours as it was staffed by volunteers.  I was pleased to see that the hours had been greatly expanded.  The fee for the films had increased to $7.50 and when I arrived at the library I noted that they now had a scanner similar to what I had used in Utah, although in Utah scanning had been free.  Here they charged the same for a scan as for a hardcopy, still a bargain when weighed against airfare to Utah.

I was accustom to searching the online Family History Library Catalog. In the past I had searched for a country and city and then gone to the category of Jewish records.  From there I had ordered the relevant films and carefully studied them, looking for family names in that ancient script. While that is still available, you will want to first do a name search in hopes that the records you are looking for have been indexed.

The research I was doing was for a Catholic German family. I knew that family came from Mehren, Germany so first I tried the old method.   I went to the catalog and I input Mehren, Germany.  I came up with two categories, a book on Genealogy and a some films of vital records, one of baptisms in particular.  In the old days I would have proceeded to look at each record on that baptismal film looking for family names.  If I was fortunate there might be an index. Now there is a much easier path, to the same information.  At familysearch.org, I entered the names I was searching.  Up popped census records as, well as baptismal records by name, each accompanied by the film number.    When I went to the film, I was able to quickly locate the correct record because the indexed record had revealed the year plus I had the certainty that the record would be there.

JRI-Poland has previously indexed many of the Jewish records so I’ve had the benefit of some indexing, but for the most part my past research still required painstaking searching through foreign records.  Now that process was greatly simplified, at least if you are one of the fortunate ones whose family has been indexed.

I pulled the 1800s baptismal records and turned my attention to the other film, a family history that someone else had invested the time in creating.  As this was a family that came to the US in the mid-1800s the research was primarily US based.  The research in Germany included the baptismal records and a marriage record, but had not gone further back. My client had a suspicion that there might be Jewish history in her tree and was interested in exploring that further.  If so, I concluded it was not in the US branch which had a healthy number of priests and nuns in the tree.  One of the things I was looking for to test her theory was naming.  Ashkenazic Jews name children after a deceased grandparent or great-grandparent and I thought the naming pattern might have persisted.  Nothing in that vein as of yet.

If you are considering a search for your family records I would encourage you to first try your luck at familysearch.org and if films exist venture out to one of the local church family history libraries.  They are open to the public and you need not be affiliated with the church to make use of their resources.  It was my first step many years ago and set me on a fascinating journey.

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