Collections vary, just as with any library. The bulk of any FHC is likely to be its microfilm and microfiche collection. Many of these records for the United States are now available online in PDF format. An FHC will typically have some local genealogical and historical publications, some maps, and some research guides.
FHCs build their collection by renting microfilm and microfiche from the archive in Salt Lake City to local patrons. For a nominal fee, the film or fiche becomes the property of the local FHC. Patrons do not own the film or fiche, which is just as well since few patrons have a reader at home. The process also benefits other patrons who might research information on the same film or fiche. The data remains in the Center, unless the patron pays only the minimum fee and the record is returned to Salt Lake City.
When we think of old genealogical records, we often think back only to the 1800s, or maybe the 1700s. Records from this era, and much older, are still in existence from other countries. Many of these records are not online yet, but patrons can rent them through a local FHC.
The first step in procuring data from Salt Lake City is to determine what information is needed and what film or fiche to order. The FHC staff is available to assist patrons with this search, place the order, and help the patron use the records. Savvy FHC staff provide invaluable help to novices and researchers who need advice on continuing researching beyond a certain point. In genealogy circles, we call that moving beyond "the brick wall." Staff does not perform research for patrons. Instead, they advise and teach patrons to do research and to interpret the data they do find. As New FamilySearch is rolled out, they help patrons learn the new system.
The Hidden Treasures of the FHC
FamilySearch is the key to finding treasures available through the FHC. FamilySearch has an online catalog for locating data. There is more available than just fiche and film. Some data has been digitized and can be accessed by a computer.
There are two types of documents that can be accessed through the FHC catalog. Some are only available to users who are logged on in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. An example is Landowners of DuPage County, Illinois: an index to plat maps and related sources, 1835-1904. The data is the same as on Fiche # 6087876, a two-fiche set. But, if you are in Salt Lake, you can access the digitized version without using a microfiche reader.
Other items such as the "Encyclopedic History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints," are online in PDF format. These digitized records have been indexed so that patrons can search every name and every place name and, in fact, every word in the document. Patrons can magnify them to see them better, where needed. Patrons can print individual pages. Patrons can copy individual phrases and paste them into notes instead of typing them. Better yet, patrons can copy the title of the source and paste it into notes or genealogy software database.
These digitized files can be accessed from home. You do not need to be in the library at Salt Lake City. The only exception might be if you are accessing from a system that restricts you from logging onto other websites. In that event, a notice will appear on your screen explaining that. This sometimes happens on college campuses or libraries where security is highly monitored.
Church records are not the only ones that have been digitized. The 1882 Gazetteer of Scotland is online in PDF format. It is still available on fiche – a set of eleven fiche, in fact. The 19 fiche of the 1877 Gazetteer of Hungary have been digitized, as well. Each of the two volumes is digitized separately.
This is just a sampling of the documents that have been digitized. There are vast amounts of genealogical records that remain on microfilm or fiche. And, of course, there are numerous documents on paper or parchment.
Gearing Up For A Trip To the FHC
Keep in mind that FHC staff is comprised of volunteers and FHC rules require that two volunteers work each shift. Always call before you visit an FHC and verify that they will be open.
Take your research with you. Don't try to remember all those names and dates. Even if you don't have much data yet, take everything you have with you. The most practical way to do this is to keep your data on a laptop and take your laptop to the FHC with you.
Look up as much data online as you are able. You can use FamilySearch at home to identify the fiche or film you need to rent. Go to the Family Search website. On the main page, look for the "Library" tab. That tab has a dropdown menu. Choose Library Catalog
Click on one of the eight types of searches (place, surname, keyword, etc.) to find the information. I have an ancestor whose last name was Severe. A surname search for Severe turned up seven sources. The first source was Autobiography by James McBride. Clicking on the source calls up a page with descriptive information. In the upper right hand corner, is a button labeled "View Film Notes." Click on that button to see information about the film of that autobiography. Below the label "Location Film" are two pieces of information. The first one is the location and the second piece of information is the film number and the number of fiche on which the document is stored.
Most centers require that you visit the FHC in person to request a rental. To request this autobiography, record the fiche number (6101613 in this case) on the request form at the FHC and pay the rental fee. The FHC will contact you when the fiche arrives and is available for your viewing in the FHC.
While many records are available online, the FHC continues to provide access to those documents that are not. Visit your local FHC to find out what is already available onsite and how to find more information.