Exploring the FamilySearch centers

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I have been asked by people who are new to genealogy where they can go to get help from an expert, and where they can view records that are categorized as “restricted.” There are two equally valid choices, for different reasons: the nearest FamilySearch Center or Affiliate Library

A FamilySearch Center (they were called Family History Centers until early 2023) is a small room in a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) building set aside for genealogical research. You do not have to be a church member to use this room, and no one will EVER give you literature or any speech on why you should join their church. EVER. (You are more than welcome to take a copy of a brochure from the desk, if you are interested.) You have to find the entrance to that building for the FamilySearch Center and press a buzzer/bell so someone will let you in the building. The main entrance they use for church is rarely the correct door for the center. Look for a sign, or a bunch of cars parked near a side door.

Your typical FamilySearch Center has a table, some chairs, several computers, and some microfilm machines that are rarely used anymore since these records are on FamilySearch.org. They are usually open on a couple of days per week, maybe a few hours on Saturday. The schedule is the same every week, but the volunteers may be different. So you may want to ask the volunteer you meet to tell you who is their very best volunteer to help with Italian research, so you can try to be there when that volunteer is working.

Back in the old days, before there was www.familysearch.org, you would go to the center, look in their catalog on CD rom (or in printed form) and fill out forms asking for copies of microfilm to be sent to your center. It would take several weeks and cost $6-$7 per film. They would notify you by e-mail when the films arrived. They discontinued this expensive system in 2017 after all the centers upgraded their internet speed to allow for multiple computers to read images from FamilySearch.org at the same time. In 2021, all existing microfilm had been digitized as images, but most centers still have microfilm readers and cabinets full of films that are almost never used anymore.

An Affiliate Library is a public library that made an agreement with LDS to store genealogical material and allow people to be able to use the resources of FamilySearch.org more locally. Not everyone lives within a short driving distance to an LDS Church, especially in other parts of the world, so the local public library is an excellent alternative. I know some people who do not live close to either a Center or an Affiliate, and those who cannot drive at all have no option but to find a genealogy friend who can drive you to a Center or Library when you need access to restricted records.

The major advantage to Affiliates is the amount of hours they are open, even on Sundays! And they typically have a lot of computers available all the time. The disadvantage is that the people who work there are trained to handle “library questions” but rarely know “genealogy questions”. Once in a while you’ll find a genealogy expert who works at the affiliate library. Find out when they’re working so you can ask for their help. (Sometimes this expert has an office job on another floor and is not available to hold your hand through hours of genealogy research questions – you will have to rely on the folks working near the computers.)

Both Centers and Affiliate Libraries usually have access to the records and catalog items that are restricted from being used at home. Only rarely is an item ok to view at a Center but not at an Affiliate Library. Once in a blue moon, an item can only be viewed at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, due to a very restrictive contract. I am not aware of any Italian records that fit this description, but there could be.

Please do not try to understand the logic behind these restrictions. It made my brain hurt until I decided to stop stressing about it. My town in Italy has 1809-1900 records restricted, 1901-1920 available from home, 1921-1929 births no longer available at all, 1921-1929 marriages and deaths available from home, 1930-1935 marriages and deaths restricted, and 1936-1945 marriages and deaths available from home. None of this makes sense to me, but I’m afraid that if I point out this disparity, they will conclude that it was indeed a mistake, and they will end up restricting everything!!

I believe that part of the logic is that they want people to continue to visit FamilySearch centers. If everything could be viewed from home, people might choose to not visit centers and they will close due to lack of interest. The interest is there, but if we can work on all our records any time of the day or night at home, and avoid bad Chicago weather, why go to a center? Frankly, it is the best place to get expert help while you’re researching. You can go to a genealogy conference, attend meetings of a genealogy group, or attend a library presentation on a genealogy topic, but to get one-on-one assistance, the FamilySearch center is definitely the best place.

Both Centers and Affiliates have subscriptions to genealogy web sites that you would normally have to pay for to use at home. They may have different sites, and different levels of access, but you should check with your Center or Affiliate to see what they have. You need to access them through the Center’s familysearch page (called the Portal) or the Affiliate’s library home page. These include Newspaper Archives, Newspapers.com, findmypast, Fold3, Ancestry Institution Version, Genealogy Bank, MyHeritage Library edition, and others. So even if your FamilySearch records are available from home, you can use these other resources for free at a Center or Affiliate. Check any public library to see what they offer. It might be more than an Affiliate due to that library having its own subscriptions.

So where are all these wonderful places? Go to https://www.familysearch.org/centers/locations/

Enter your zip code and select your city from the list. Enter your zip code and select your city from the list. They’ll be plotted on a map with slightly different looking pins. Click a pin to see the location and hours, but call the FamilySearch center to confirm the hours, in case the web site is out of date.



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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