Finding Hidden Records on FamilySearch

FamilySearch has millions of genealogy records, but some of the collections don't have images of the actual record... or do they? Let's explore a way that you can sometimes find hidden records on FamilySearch.

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Background of Some FamilySearch Online Collections

Long before FamilySearch had a website, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints compiled a database called the International Genealogical Index (IGI). This database was distributed via microfiche at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and the local Family History Centers. The IGI had hundreds of millions of records. About half were submissions from individual researchers. The other half were abstracted from various vital records, church records, etc. These "extracted records" usually came from volunteers working from FamilySearch microfilm. 

When FamilySearch launched its website, the IGI was one of the biggest databases available. But there were problems, mainly in that you couldn't tell immediately what was from a record and what someone had submitted as part of their tree. (That made it really hard to evaluate what you had found and to follow up on the clue.)

In 2011, FamilySearch phased out the IGI as its own separate collection. The entries from family trees went to what is now the FamilySearch Family Tree. The extracted records — the ones from vital records, etc. — were grouped together into various Historical Record Collections. These Historical Record Collections are available on FamilySearch.org today. 

(I should note that not every "index only" collection on FamilySearch was created this way. However, this does provide a way of getting back to the image for many collections on FamilySearch.)

Finding the Actual Record

The cool thing about these collections is that even though they aren't directly linked to the image, the entries give us enough information that we can track it down. Here's how.

I searched for Minnie Haines who died in Calhoun County, Michigan between 1898 and 1900. I found a record in the collection Michigan Deaths and Burials, 1800-1995.

This entry gives us good information — date and place of death, age, birth date, parents' names, etc. However, it doesn't show the actual death record. How accurate is this index? Is there additional information that's on the record, but isn't in this entry? Fortunately, we have information that we can follow to get to the record itself.

Notice the "GS Film number." That's the number of the microfilm (1009292) that this was taken from. Further, it gives us a specific volume and page number (v. 2, p. 327) where we can find it. 

Finding the Microfilm

With that microfilm number (1009292), we can look it up in the FamilySearch catalog. (When you're on the main search page, there's a tab for "Catalog." Otherwise, hover your mouse over "Search" and select "Catalog" from the menu that pops up.)

(Tip: I like to keep the results open on one tab in my browser and open up the catalog in another tab. This lets me go back and forth as I need to without having to re-do searches.)

Once you're in the catalog, click the option "Film/Fiche Number." That will allow you to enter the microfilm number you're looking for. In this case, I'm looking for microfilm 1009292. 

When you do the search, you should get the title(s) on that microfilm. In this case, microfilm 1009292 is "Death records, 1867-1933; Death index, 1888-1996" from the Calhoun County, Michigan County Clerk. Click on the title.

Next, you'll get the detailed catalog entry for that title. This particular title is on several rolls of microfilm. When that's the case, look down the "Film" column for the microfilm you were searching for. (We're looking for 1009292.) We can see that this particular microfilm contains "Death records, v. 1-2 1867-1899."

Here's where things can get fun. See the "Format" column on the right? It tells you whether or not this microfilm has been digitized. We're in luck — the camera icon means that it has been digitized. When you click on that camera icon, you can see the images!

Don't get discouraged when you see that there are 721 images from this roll of microfilm. Remember that record that we found that gave us the microfilm number? It also told us the volume and page number: Volume 2, page 327. 

This microfilm has both volumes 1 and 2, so I need to scroll down closer to the end of the images. When I have multiple volumes on one microfilm like this one has, I like to start with the images in the thumbnail mode, rather than single images. This lets me quickly scroll down the page to see where volume 2 starts. Once I see that, I can click directly into volume 2 and navigate the images as necessary. 

NOTE: The image number does NOT equal the page number. We're looking for volume 2, page 327 (printed in the book). That isn't the same as image 327 of 721. That's why I like to start with the thumbnail view so I can get an idea of where volumes begin and end.  

I found Minnie on image 705. (The record spans across two pages of the ledger. For the sake of legibility, I'm showing it in two images below.)

Minnie Haines death record (part 2)

The actual death record gives us information that wasn't included in the entry on FamilySearch. It lists her cause of death ("Fall, Fracture of Skull") as well as "residences" of her parents (New York and Canada). (I put "residences" in quotes, as it really isn't clear if they mean residence or if they were actually recording the place of birth.)

The death record also shows that the FamilySearch record has an error. The death record clearly shows Minnie's mother's name as "Mary Stevenson," not "Maey Stevenson."

There's also information that's on the FamilySearch record that isn't on the death record itself: date of birth. The entry on FamilySearch listed Minnie's date of birth as 1857. The only thing on the death record is her date of death and her age (42 years). You do arrive at a birth year of 1857 when you do the math, but it isn't shown on the record itself. When you arrive at a date based on an age calculation, you should note it as "about <date>" or "circa <date>". The year could be wrong depending on when her birthday was or if her age is recorded incorrectly. 

Bottom line: Always work your way back to the original record.

What If the Images Aren't Available?

Not all of FamilySearch's microfilm have been digitized yet. Further, there are some that have been digitized, but the archive or government agency with the original records won't allow open access to them. You can tell from the icon on the catalog page.

FamilySearch Microfilm icon

The microfilm icon means that it has not yet been digitized. You will need to look for a Family History Center or affiliated library that already has it in its collection or use it at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. (Or wait for it to be digitized.)

FamilySearch Restricted Access icon

The restricted access icon means that you can only view the images when you are at a Family History Center or at a FamilySearch affiliate library. You won't be able to view it from home.

BONUS: This Works for Some Ancestry Collections, Too!

Some of Ancestry's collections are from a partnership with FamilySearch. When you come across a record on Ancestry that doesn't have an image, look for a reference to one or more FHL film numbers.

Screenshot of an entry from Ancestry's collection "England, Select Marriages, 1538-1973."

Using the steps above, I can go into the FamilySearch catalog and look for those two film numbers (252590 and 252591). 

FamilySearch doesn't always link images and records. Here's how to find images for many

46 thoughts on “Finding Hidden Records on FamilySearch

  1. Sometimes this is also a way of tracking down the original source when Ancestry or another aggregator gives us an entry from a “compiled index,” without telling us just where or why it was recorded. Thanks, Amy!

  2. Amy – as always – great, practical information for getting as much data from a website as possible. Use FamilySearch a good deal and had no idea that I could find the actual records of some of my finds. Thank you, thank you, thank you – Pat

    • Well stated Pat. I feel the same. Very useful tips as I also had no idea about the actual record. I plan to go back through some of my ancestors I’ve hit a brickwall on as there may a possibility the wall can be broken thru this avenue. Thanks so much Amy!!

  3. Seeking Michigan web site is faster and the actual Death Certificate is available to look at and download. Gives more information too.

    • In this particular case, yes, there is a “better” death certificate to look at. (That typically isn’t the case.) Regardless, the steps do take you back to the record that the FamilySearch volunteers used to create the entry in the IGI.

  4. Amy, thanks so much for showing us the way to do this! I’m fortunate that my local library is connected with the Family History Centers, but it’s always nice to be able to do this stuff when/where I find time — even if it’s 2:00 a.m.

  5. Amy! This is awesome sauce news! I have been up against blocks because of this and had no idea how this worked. I’m off to redo some searches and see if I hit pay dirt with some (even one would be great). Thank you so much for this!

  6. Microfilm icon probably means not yet digitized, right? But this is a great bit of information, can hardly wait to apply it.

  7. Dang! And here I am about to go out for the evening! 😀 I look forward to playing with this tomorrow bright and early!!

  8. This is great information! Thanks so much! I do have one question. Did you start your search in Michigan records with Calhoun County as a parameter?

    • From the main search, I searched for Minnie Haines with a death place of Calhoun, Michigan who died between 1898 and 1900.

  9. Thank you for the tip! This is awesome!! Any ideas when or if we will ever be able to view the scanned but locked files from home? Inquiring minds want to know. 😉

    • It’s completely up to the records custodian (the archive or government agency who holds the original records). FamilySearch works to get the rights to display the images openly, but sometimes all they can get is the rights to the index.

      • Often, like Cook County, IL (Chicago), the local authority wants to be able to charge you $$ for access or copy of the original.

  10. Thanks for all of the tips, especially the one about Ancestry. I thought it just was a deadend. Now I have lots of records to look up!

  11. Thanks for an interesting article. All too often people use only the search function and overlook the catalog. Many, many microfilms have not been indexed and will not show up on simple searches. This is especially true if you are searching in European countries, such as Ukraine.

    You mentioned below that the microfilm icon means that it has not been microfilmed. I think you meant digitized, did you not. The microfilm reels are now only available at the FH Library in Salt Lake City and no longer available on loan.

    “The microfilm icon means that it has not yet been microfilmed. You will need to look for a Family History Center or affiliated library that already has it in its collection or use it at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. (Or wait for it to be digitized.)”

    • Yes, I meant digitized. I’ve made the correction.

      While the FamilySearch microfilm is no longer available on loan, there are some local Family History Centers and affiliate libraries that still have some of the microfilm in their holdings. When you’re in the catalog, there’s a drop down right above the listing of microfilm that shows where it is available.

  12. Pingback: This week’s crème de la crème — July 28, 2018 | Genealogy à la carte

  13. Amy, you have done a great job of explaining the steps to get to the original record. I’m surprised more patrons aren’t coming to our Family History Centre to see the digitized image that they can’t view from home. With your permission we will try to duplicate your step by step description for our patrons. The catalog is the gateway to all the records at SLC. Very few people understand how to mine it for all it is worth. More step by step instructions would be wonderful. Thanks.

  14. I can’t thank you enough! This is life changing! I just spent the day locating all kinds of records for ancestors I thought were a closed book! So exciting! This was like Christmas morning!!

  15. I have somehow drilled down to a micro reference (don’t recall exactly how) and could only search it by using a search form and not by browsing individual microfilm images in sequence. How can I get around this? Also, I often see a reference to a “digital folder”, what is that and how does it differ from a microfilm?

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