Category Archives: Family History Library

The Insider’s Guide to the Family History Library and SLC

Salt Lake City is about to be descended upon my a few thousand genealogists and technologists. As I see people posing questions and writing comments on various blogs, I have answered a few. Thus, I’ve decided to write this blog post.

If it’s your first time to the Family History Library, or you just haven’t been back in a while, you may feel overwhelmed when you first enter the library. There is an orientation you can try, but you still won’t be sure of yourself until you get started. There are lots of volunteers to help you. If they try to give you research advice, be wary. Many missionaries try to help, but you might know far more about doing research. If they help you with finding films/books or using readers/scanners, that part they should be good at.

Five Floors

Upon entering the FHL, you are on the Main floor. This floor has computers, histories, and a junk food room. I spend little time on this floor myself, except when I need a break and a chocolate bar. They have several machines ranging from drinks (soda, milk, juices, water), chocolate and chips and snack foods, microwaveable meals, and one ice cream machine.

All floors have restrooms and water fountains in the same place, rows of computers, at least a few extra tables, microfilm readers and scanners (except for the third floor), printers/scanners, an information desk, and a library access services office. (Note that the information desk on the main floor rarely has any of the kind of information I try to ask them for. Other floors are more useful for specific research questions.)

Upstairs is US and Canada research. The second floor has microfilm and microfiche. The third floor has books. If you need to see any books, make sure you check them because they can’t be ordered to your local Family History Centers (that I’m aware of).

Downstairs is International (B-1) and British Isles/Australia/New Zealand (B-2).

Do your research at the microfilm readers then go to the scanners only to make scans/copies of records you have found. This will keep you from annoying other people by taking time at the scanners while they are waiting. I often go straight to the scanners when copying records that are indexed. Just be sure you are familiar with how to find the page you need if you do that.

The scanners can scan directly to flash drive or you can also print for $.05 per copy (or $.10 for big pages, I believe; I don’t usually print). There are machines from which to buy copy cards. The scanners have a learning curve, so ask for help. There are also instructional pages in the scanner area. The person working next to you might help also.

Can You Avoid Crowds?

Before, during, and after RootsTech, it will probably be crowded. SLIG attendees will also be there the week before. If you find the US/Canada floor too crowded, try the International floor, or the British floor, where there are often fewer people.

How To Prepare -or- Where Are My Films?

Prepare in advance what you want to look at. Don’t just figure out which families you want to research, check the FHL catalog and have film numbers and book call numbers ready to go.

The FHL is a help-yourself facility. You need to find your own films, fiches, and books, and then replace them when you are done. So don’t overdo it when you take films. They recommend up to five at a time, but only take that many if you’ll be quick with them; remember others might want to use the same films too. Microfilm drawers are labeled with the first film number in the drawer. Some people will sometimes mark the drawers with magnetic things or post-its for refiling. Try not to be dyslexic while refiling and double check that you’ve boxed the correct film in the correct box. (I had a scavenger hunt across four boxes once to find a mis-filed film reel.)

If you can’t find your film in the correct drawer (and there’s no gap like someone is using it), you need to check Overflow. At the end of the films (you’ll see the order), some drawers are marked with pink film numbers. Those are the overflow drawers. If you can’t find your film in order or in overflow, and it’s not in the vault, it’s usually in high density. So keep reading.

Fiche are also borrowed and returned to their drawers; there are red marker cards above the drawers to mark your place. Books should be returned to the red shelves, but if I just look at it while standing by the shelf, I often just put it back. Many books are in high density on the International floor. (I don’t know about British books.) Keep in mind that when you grab a book from the shelf, you are in the location/topic, so you might look at what else is there even if you didn’t see the listings in the catalog.

If a film says that it’s in the Vault, order it ahead of time. (Ooh, that’s a form I hadn’t seen before.) It takes only a day or two to get a film from the vault, but they can only do so many per day, so don’t overwork them during the conference for films you know you need before you arrive. If your research leads you to a vault film when you’re still around for another day or two, then go ahead and order it.

Sometimes the catalog will specify High Density or to visit Access Services (or sometimes it won’t and you have to check there anyway). Do not fret! (I’ve seen people panic.) High density is in the building on the B-1 floor. It takes them maybe five minutes to get your film. Access services is a small office with glass windows on every floor near the scanners. If the catalog says access services, it may mean the records are restricted and they will hold your government-issued ID while you have the film/fiche, or it may be in high density. Anything you get from high density or access services should be returned to them; don’t try to put the films into drawers.

Outside There’s A City

You may feel cooped up inside and want to know what’s outside the buildings. Between the conference center and the FHL, JB’s Restaurant is noticeably attached to the lobby of the Plaza hotel. There is a restaurant in the lobby of the Radisson hotel. The Hilton has a couple restaurants, and there are plenty on other streets nearby. The Gateway is an outdoor mall just down the street from all of this and they have lots of restaurants.

You can use Trax to get around a bit. It is our light rail system. There is a convenient station called Temple Square for the Plaza, FHL, Salt Palace convention center, and the Radisson (and Temple Square too). The Arena Station can work for the Radisson also. In downtown, we are in the free fare zone, so Trax and buses won’t cost anything within those boundaries. The Gallivan station is on the street directly behind the Hilton (if your hotel is out that way); you just have to find a path through the buildings and parking lots. (I know for a fact there was a shortcut through to the Hilton in 2007.) The Planetarium station brings you to the front of Gateway, but the next one or two stops might also be good.

Just remember that, if you live by Murphy’s law (like I do), waiting for Trax and walking will often take the same time. Last year, I opted to walk to the Planetarium with a friend instead of waiting. Trax arrived at the same time we did.

What’s In Temple Square?

Temple Square is home to the Mormon Salt Lake Temple and the Tabernacle. (You’ve probably heard of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.) It’s open from 9am-9pm every day. Besides those two buildings, there are several other buildings and gardens. In the south visitor center, they have a model of the Temple; it’s the only way a non-Mormon will ever see the inside. I can’t tell you a whole lot of details, but there’s this web site to read more about it, including info about the four restaurants and choir performances and rehearsals (8pm Thursdays).

How’s The Weather?

SLC is in a drought. We’ve had very, very little snow this year. I see two possibilities. 1. It will stay this way. 2. Murphy will visit and dump a huge snowstorm on us just in time for your visit. One forecast is saying a possibility for rain/snow on the 19th or 20th of January. They don’t predict far enough in advance for February. Either way, bring a jacket, gloves, hat, whatever you like for winter. Even if there’s no snow, it’s cold. I don’t have a heavy coat; I layer instead. And wear comfortable shoes. A block in downtown SLC is probably multiple blocks in your city, and there’s also a good deal of walking just in the convention center.

Anything I missed that I should mention? Let me know and maybe I’ll add a section to this blog post.

Additional FHL Details

Is There Wi-fi?

There is free wi-fi available from the FHL. A quick accepting of the terms in a web browser will get you connected. They block a few things; consider that it’s run by a religious organization and they probably try to block the same things as public libraries and schools. Unfortunately, they block the standard email ports so I can’t get to my regular mail, but I can get to gmail with no problem. (I have my own hosting, so probably very few people will have the email issue I do.) Besides my email, it’s extremely rare for me to find something blocked.

Can I Bring My Own Computer?

Absolutely. I have seen all kinds of computers, tablets, and cameras. Some people leave their computers by the readers and walk away; I suggest doing that only if it’s locked down. There are outlets behind the microfilm readers, but some are harder to reach than others. Some tables have plugs built in, but I don’t think they are all connected.

I already mentioned they have lots of computers that everyone can use to access the catalog, subscription databases, or any web sites. Just don’t forget your flash drive in a computer. As in the real world, I think most people are honest and would turn it in to lost and found, but I forgot one once and never got it back. Also, you might want put your name on the flash drive or the lanyard; the employees will not check the drive to see if there’s a name on it.

Will My Cell Phone Work?

There is average cell phone service in the building, the quality of which depends on your carrier and phone. I never get a signal in the basement. If you’re on Verizon, you’re in luck because there is a repeater in the basement. Try to remember to put your phone on silent and step away to the elevator area if you take any calls so as not to annoy others.

What Else Can I Bring?

I have seen rolling suitcases, binders, charts, even extra tables set up next to film readers. I don’t think anything is restricted, except maybe proselytizing. And no, they won’t try to sell you on their religion while you’re in the FHL. If you want to know more about the LDS church, there’s plenty of other nearby places to go instead.

And since RootsTech is in winter, I’ll mention that there are coat racks on every floor. Or you can just drape your coat over your chair.

Genealogists Work Alone… Or Do We?

Most of my time doing genealogy research is spent alone at the Family History Library with my headphones on. I’m usually working for a client and don’t want to be disturbed, even though people still talk to me when I can’t hear them. You can often find me at a microfilm reader or scanner lip syncing to the music, tapping my feet, and sometimes even mildly dancing/swaying to the music. I’ve always been good at working alone.

Sometimes genealogists work in groups, and that works too. I am part of an indexing project, and often societies and SIGs will work together in the same way to index local records or cemeteries.

Rarely, genealogists work in pairs. (Well, it’s rare for me.) This past week, I had the opportunity to work with two different genealogists.

One of those people, I have worked with before. I have worked a number of jobs for him as his FHL look-up person. I arrived early in the morning and a bit sleep deprived. We discussed several clients, work he’s asked me to do and some he’s going to ask, then we went to the FHL. I did some look-ups in books and on CDs, later on films, but he mostly worked on the computer. For a while, we sat at neighboring computers, doing look-ups and talking. It gave me someone to talk to whereas I usually end up talking to the employees and volunteers, or myself.

The other one was a bit different; our personalities are a bit more compatible. I had just arrived at the FHL in a good mood after a party, which probably influenced the evening. I started by joking with him about working on the US floor when the International floor is more interesting. He told me about the family he was researching and how he wasn’t even “sure the man could see his own reflection in a mirror”. I suggested ways to search the census, most of which he’d tried, and we both tried searching some more. When he went for city directories, he pulled six films and we set up at neighboring film readers, each going through half of the stack, talking to each other, looking over our shoulders at the negative results we were both getting. I got none of my own work done, but it was a lot of fun to help with his.

I enjoyed working with both of them, though there was a lot more joking and “socializing” with the second example. With both of us trying various searches online and then sharing the film look-ups, things seemed to go faster and be more interesting.

Would I like to work with these two colleagues again? Absolutely! I enjoyed working with both. Would I want to do that all the time? Probably not likely. I still like to work alone.

Beginner’s Guide to the Family History Library – Part 3 – The Usual Suspects

Each floor of the Family History Library shares many traits.

Information Desk

On every floor, there is an information desk as you exit the stairs or the elevators. The second floor has a bit of an “outer lobby”, but look around and you can’t miss the information desk. There are always people at these counters waiting to help you, so ask questions. (Don’t wander around trying to figure out something when a quick question can save you time.) At any given time, you may find the desk staffed with volunteers or expert consultants. On the International floor, the desk is staffed with people who can help you read the records in foreign languages. (I have been told that a German translator is always available.)

Access Services

There is an Access Services room on each floor. These are small rooms located by the scanners. If you need a restricted microfiche, you can pick it up at the window (in exchange for a photo ID). This is also where you order microfilm from the vault; films must be ordered on the floor where they will be filed, i.e. International films must be ordered on the International floor and cannot be ordered on the US floor.

Very important: This is also where you get items from high density storage. If you have looked for a book or microfilm and can’t find it, and the catalog says it’s available, it’s usually in high density. The catalog will not indicate if an item is in high density, so you have to ask. These items are retrieved immediately; no need to worry about ordering them days in advance like films from the vault.


Microfilm Drawers

Most floors (not the main floor or the third floor) have microfilm. The microfilm are self-serve.   There are signs at the end of each aisle to tell you which numbered films are there. Each drawer displays the number of the first film in the drawer. Try not to take too many at a time because someone else might need the film; stick with five or six at most. You must refile them when you are finished. There are usually two small, rolling step stools in each aisle to help you reach the films that are too high; sometimes you have to check other aisles to find them.

Each floor with microfilm has aisles of microfilm readers. There are some special readers with more magnification and for left-handed use that are clearly labelled.


Floors with microfilm also have microfiche. There is a cabinet on each floor. Red plastic markers are on top of the cabinet to help you mark the place to refile the fiche. There are usually a few fiche readers near the cabinet. As stated before, some microfiche are restricted and must be picked up at the Access Services windows.


Maps can be found on many floors. Some you will find on special map tables containing large books with collections of maps; others are in cabinets.


The main floor has family histories; books that people have written about their own families. The second floor has no books; US and Canada books are found on the third floor. Both basement floors have books. As stated before, many books (especially on B-1, the International floor) are in high density and must be requested from Access Services.

There are usually two sections of books: reference books are found near the information desk on each floor while other books have their own areas on the floor.


There are rows of computers on every floor. You can access the FHL catalog and many subscription genealogy web sites for free. You can access most of the Internet (they do have some filters set up to block some things). You can also use the FHL wi-fi network with your own computer (but it has even more filters — I’ve never connected to email on my own computer).

Scanners, Printers, and Photocopiers

There are some printers within the computer area as well as one by the scanners. Scanners are on all floors except the main floor. From the scanners, you can save digital images from your microfilm or microfiche to your own flash drive, burn them to a CD, or send them to the nearby printer. There is also one flatbed scanner on each floor for scanning books.

The third floor has several photocopy machines instead of film/fiche scanners, whereas other floors have just one photocopier.


Just in case some of my details are incorrect, keep in mind that sometimes things are changed at the FHL, I don’t spend much time on some floors, and I’m writing this article from memory.

This is the third part in a series. For previous articles see:

Beginner’s Guide to the Family History Library – Part 2 – The Building


The Family History Library is conveniently located in downtown Salt Lake City, near the Trax line within the Free Fare Zone, across the street from Temple Square, and down the street from the Salt Palace Convention Center.

The library has five floors, two of which are basement floors. When you walk in the entrance — using the door on the right — there will be someone immediately to your left who will likely greet you. Don’t be surprised and just say “hello” back. Also, if someone greets you walking down the sidewalk, don’t be suspicious; people are just really friendly in SLC sometimes.

Straight ahead from the door is an information desk. I believe this is where you get the “First Timer” sticker (they didn’t have them my first time) and they can direct you to an orientation session if you want to go. The orientation room is to your left when facing the desk. There are also stairs up to the second floor on the left. To the right of the entrance is another stairway and the elevators.

The main floor has the orientation room, lots of computers, family history books, a break room (with food and drink machines), and some classrooms.

The second floor is the US/Canada floor, with computers, microfilm, microfiche, microfilm readers, and a printing/scanning area.

The third floor houses US and Canada books, with several photocopiers and one digital scanner. There are also extra tables, many with electrical outlets built in, where you can spread out to work or organize. They recently expanded the number of computers on this floor.

Downstairs, B-1 is the International floor. This floor houses both microfilm and books and has computers, readers, printers, and scanners.

B-2, the lowest level, is the British Isles, which includes Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and a few other areas.

When you look for items in the FHL catalog, they will state whether they are US/CAN, INTL, or BRITISH, which tells you on what floor of the building you will find them. Remember that US and Canada books have their own floor separate from microfilm and microfiche.

This is the second part in a series. The first part can be found at Beginner’s Guide to the Family History Library – Part 1 – Plan Ahead.

Beginner’s Guide to the Family History Library – Part 1 – Plan Ahead

My first visit to the Family History Library, I was completely unprepared. I have a vague recollection of going through their standard orientation, but I didn’t know what I was looking for or what I was doing. I can’t even remember if I found any records or not. I do remember being shown how to write a certain surname in Russian. (And I’m certain that Margarita Choquette was the one who showed me; I befriended her after I moved here.)

A few years later, I made it back. By then, I had been doing genealogy research for a few years (not counting what I did in my childhood) and had a better idea of how to do things.

Now, I live in Salt Lake City and the Family History Library is my second home. (Seriously, I’ve got a cot in the back corner of B-1, but it’s got a perception filter so you won’t see it.)

I can go to the FHL whenever I want, but if you’re making a trip to Salt Lake City, you want to be prepared before you get here.

And that is the most important thing to do before visiting the Family History Library: Plan Ahead.

Know what you want to research. Choose a family to search, print out the charts with the information you need (or bring it on a flash drive), and figure out what you want to learn. Search the FHL Catalog to see what records are available. Make a list of sources that you want to check, and what you are hoping to find, and write down the film and call numbers. You don’t want to waste time doing that when you get here, so do it at home.

When you’re writing film numbers, make a note of what else the catalog says about it. Some of your research will be obvious, but each film has a number and a “code” that will say US/CAN, INTL, or BRITISH. In case you’re not sure or you forget, this will tell you where to find the film when you get to the building.

If the film says VAULT, then you will need to request the film. Not every microfilm in the catalog is at the Family History Library. Some are only in the Granite Vault. It usually takes a day or two for the vault to send it over to the FHL, so you will want to request those films before you leave. The FHL has a form online specifically for requesting films. In my experience, they can take a couple days to answer your email request, and probably a couple more days to fill the request.

Knowing what you hope to accomplish before you arrive will help a lot. Instead of spending time figuring out what to research, you can just jump right into the research.