Navigating the maze of online documents

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A number of people have written to me with the same question, which means it’s a good time to address this for everyone. (Please write questions to me at at any time.)

Readers have looked up films in the catalog on, and the catalog tells them that the images for those films are online. So they go to look at the images, and Familysearch tells them “Nope you can’t see these!” Well, that stinks!

To explain this situation, we need to talk about legal agreements for a moment. Familysearch has to negotiate with each repository of documents for the right to index them, the right to display them on the screen, and the right to allow us to copy and print them. Some of these repositories make money from selling access to the images of these documents, and thus they cannot be seen online at all. Each one seems to have a different contract. For example, the records for the province of Bari from 1866-1900 can be viewed but not copied or printed, but from 1901-1929 they can be both viewed and printed. Why is there a difference? Different repository.

So why does Familysearch lie to us about viewing images? They don’t, really. It’s part of the contract. There are different agreements with different levels of access. Many items, including most Italian records before 1900, are available, but cannot be viewed from your home. You must go to a Family History Center or an Affiliate Library to view or copy these records. More on that in a moment. The following are all possibilities:

  • Images are available on Familysearch, and can be viewed, downloaded and printed from your home.
  • Images are available on Familysearch, and can be viewed from your home but cannot be downloaded and printed.
  • Images cannot be viewed from home but can be viewed at a Family History Center or Affiliate Library.
  • Images can be indexed on Familysearch but cannot be viewed anywhere.

So what is an affiliate library? A lot of people are not aware that there are public libraries that have been given approval by the LDS Church to have access to the same records and images as Family History Centers. There were very few affiliate libraries at first, because it meant that they would have to process microfilm orders and store the films and have microfilm machines available, and schedule patron time etc. A major hassle. Once the Family History Library in Salt Lake City stopped shipping microfilm all over the world, those hassles went away and many larger public libraries took on the role of “affiliate library” in order to get access to the images that could not be viewed from home.

The best part of using Familysearch at an affiliate library is that they are open all week long and have evening hours, compared to Family History Centers which are limited to only a day or two every week, and even close for the Summer sometimes. So why go to a Family History Center when you can just go to an Affiliate Library with expanded hours? A few reasons come to mind. Public libraries don’t always have people on staff who can help you with genealogy research. Let’s be honest: most public libraries have no staff with genealogy experience except for libraries with a genealogy room. Family History Centers, even though the staff is volunteer, are staffed specifically with genealogy in mind. And other patrons in the Family History Center are also doing genealogy research, so even they may be able to help you. Other patrons in the public library are not necessarily there for genealogy, so they can’t help you with reading genealogy records. So if you need help reading the images you find in a public affiliate library, you might not find anyone who can help you. Another reason to use Family History Centers is that there are not many people there, whereas public libraries are filled with people and little kids running around and a lot of superfluous noise. Family History centers sometimes have some noise in the hallways from other activities, but are much quieter than public libraries. So it is easier to concentrate at a Family History Center. That said, it is up to you to weigh the pros and cons of using both. There is no reason that you can’t use Affiliate Libraries AND Family History Centers depending on what you’re working on, how urgently you need it, and how much help you think you will need while you’re working.

One small caveat: there are SOME images that can ONLY be viewed at Family History Centers, and are NOT viewable at Affiliate Libraries. But these are pretty rare. You’ll find out which images you need that are ONLY viewable at Family History Centers and you’ll have to restrict yourself to those when you need those images.

Now with all that said, you will find images you can see on the computer screen, but when you move the mouse to the “Download” or “Print” buttons on the upper right, the mouse changes to a circle with a line through it, and says “Cannot download due to contractual restrictions,” or words to that effect. This might happen either at home or at a Family History Center or Affiliate Library. Once again, the contract between Familysearch and the repository stipulates that the images can be viewed, but not downloaded or printed. Perhaps the idea behind this rule is that you can view the image for personal research, but if you need a physical copy of the image for professional research for a client, you should go through the repository and pay for a copy. I can’t tell you to take a picture of your screen with your cell phone to get a copy of the image anyway. I definitely can’t tell you to do that …

So, the next question is, which libraries are Affiliate Libraries. To find a current map with Family History Centers and Affiliate Libraries, go to and type in your zip code.

If you have any questions, send me an e-mail at and please put “Fra Noi” in the subject line. Enjoy!

About Dan Niemiec

Dan Niemiec has been the genealogy columnist for Fra Noi since 2004. For the past 25 years, he has researched his genealogy back 17 generations, plus tracing descendants of his ancestors, yielding 74,000 relatives. His major focus is on civil and church records in Italy, Chicago vital records, Chicago Catholic records and most major genealogy web sites. He has given dozens of presentations to many local and some national genealogy societies on topics such as cemetery research, Catholic records, Italian records, Ellis Island and newspaper research, among others.

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