A Step-by-Step Guide to Finding Digital Images in the FamilySearch Catalog

Recently, I discussed the use of Catholic church records for discovering the place of origin in the Old Country for one’s immigrant ancestors. Many people seem to be put off by the idea of obtaining church records from parishes in the U.S. because it may require some extra effort—letter writing, phone calls, or personal visits to the parish. However, in some cases, it’s possible to find church records—and many other types of records as well—online, at FamilySearch. The key is to know how to search the site to get the most out of it, and many beginners just don’t know how to do that. So today, I’d like to demonstrate the different results that are obtained by using two different strategies to find records in FamilySearch, and to explain how to access browsable images for those who may be unfamiliar with the process.

Even if you’re new to genealogy, you may have heard of FamilySearch. FamilySearch is the search portal for records gathered by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons). If you’re really brand new to genealogy and have never visited their site before, then you should begin by registering to create a free account.Search box

Once you’ve created an account and are logged in, you can begin by clicking the “search” icon at the bottom, near the center of the page.

Searching Indexed Historical Records at FamilySearch

There are a number of different ways you can use this site to search for records pertaining to your ancestors. Most people begin by using the “Search Historical Records” interface, shown here:Search Historical Records

This is a great way to see what indexed records might be available, but it’s important to remember that it only taps into records that are included in indexed databases. To give you an example of what this strategy will find and what it will not find, let’s look for a baptismal record for Zofia/Sophia Klaus, born in Buffalo, New York in 1891. If I enter that information into the search form, as shown above, here’s what results:

Sophia Klaus, search results

Notice that the top search results include hits from two databases, the Social Security Death Index and Ellis Island passenger arrivals, but no birth records. These aren’t all the results, however. These are just the search results that were determined to be the best matches according to the search algorithm. If we want to view the results another way which allows us to drill down to birth records more easily, we can click the “Collections” view at the top (shown in red in the image above) rather than the “Records” view which is the default display format. Once we click “Collections,” the results are broken down into various categories, such as “Birth, Marriage & Death,” “Census & Lists,” “Migration & Naturalization,” etc. Since we’re looking for a birth record, we’re only interested in results from that first category.

Birth Marriage and Death

The image above shows collections in which an approximate match was found for our Zofia/Sophia Klaus. Notice that the top five “Birth, Marriage & Death” databases are all death records and obituaries. While this may be helpful in locating a birth date (based on a death date) it’s not going to give us an actual birth certificate or baptismal record. For that matter, it helps to realize that, prior to about 1915, there was no full compliance with the law requiring birth registrations in New York State , so we’re better off seeking a baptismal record for someone born in 1891, rather than a birth certificate. Although the top five databases weren’t much help, maybe we can find something for Zofia in another collection? Let’s try clicking on “Show all 9” (circled in red in the image above) to see what they’ve got.

All 9

The result? Nada.

Searching Browsable Scans at FamilySearch

At this point, many family historians might conclude that FamilySearch doesn’t have any baptismal records for Zofia/Sophia Klaus. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. In reality, FamilySearch offers a vast wealth of genealogical records that have not yet been indexed, but can nonetheless be viewed online as browsable scans. How do we find those records? We search the Family History Library (FHL) catalog, which can be accessed by going back to that “Search” option at the top, and selecting “Catalog” from the drop-down menu.

Catalog search

Once we click “Catalog,” it takes us to the page shown below, where we can search for a place name, in this case, “Buffalo.” Various options are offered for places with “Buffalo” in the name, but if we type anything further (e.g. “New York”) it narrows the options until we’re only looking at one place.

Buffalo, NY

Once we’ve clicked on the desired place (in the green box), we can see all the types of records that are available from the Family History Library pertaining to Buffalo. We’re interested in church records, near the bottom of this image:

Church records

I know that Zofia/Sophia Klaus was the daughter of Polish immigrants Andrew/Andrzej and Marianna/Mary (née Łącka) Klaus, who were Catholic, so she was likely to have been baptized in an ethnic Polish Catholic parish. When I click on “Church records,” I have a variety of options for records from a number of different Christian faiths. If I didn’t know which parishes in Buffalo were founded by Polish immigrants (and which of those parishes were in existence by 1891), a quick internet search could probably assist me, and might in fact lead me to this list of Polish parishes in Western New York, offered by the Polish Genealogical Society of New York State (PGSNYS).

Once all the collections in the catalog which pertain to Polish parishes have been identified, I could search through all of them, looking for baptisms circa 1891 in order to find Zofia. However, a better strategy would be to try to determine which parish the family might have belonged to based on their address in city directories around the time of Zofia’s birth. Cutting to the chase here, let’s take a look at records from St. Adalbert’s Basilica in Buffalo, which we find in the list of available parish records:

Church records St. Adelbert

This is perhaps the only confusing part in this process. I’ve had people come to me saying, “But I clicked ‘Add’ and it didn’t do anything!” At this point, you want to click on the title of the collection, “Church records, 1887-1916,” do not click where it says, “Add.” When you click on the title, you come to this page:

St. Adalbert's

Once you arrive here, it’s important to realize that the good stuff is at the bottom. Don’t click “Add to Print List,” just scroll down on the page, as indicated by the red arrow. Once you scroll down, you’ll see the following:

Film notes

The first thing you should look at is the part that says “Notes,” because this tells you precisely what the film contains — in this case, “Microfilm of original records at St. Adalbert Basilica Parish, Buffalo, New York.” The language of the records is usually noted here (in this case, Latin), as is other helpful information, such as the fact that most volumes include an internal index. This means that you won’t have to search page by page to find your ancestors — you can consult the internal index created by the priest within the parish register itself, and then find the relevant entries pertaining to your ancestors. Finally, the film notes specify the exact range of years that are included for each type of vital event — births, marriages, and deaths.

Below the Notes, there is a section called “Film/Digital Notes.” This tells you the original microfilm number for this collection, as well as the corresponding DGS number (digital folder number) for the images. On the far right, there is a camera icon. This indicates that the images are freely available online, from any computer. Sometimes you’ll see an icon depicting a camera with a key above it. In those instances, access to the images is restricted, and they must be viewed at a Family History Center (FHC). Although this restriction may seem like a nuisance, the situation is really no different than in the “good old days” of microfilm rental, since travel to the FHC was necessary in order to view the microfilms, too. However, in this case we’re really lucky, because we can peruse church records from St. Adalbert’s at 2 am if we wish, wearing our favorite jammies in our comfiest chair.

Once you click that “camera” icon, you see an array of thumbnail images:

Film images

Note also that the DGS number, the image number, and the total number of available images in the collection are noted in the upper left corner. You’ll want to make note of these in your source citation, which is your trail of breadcrumbs for locating the record again should you or another researcher wish to understand how you found the record in the first place. (If you’re not sure how to cite online images like this, Elizabeth Shown Mills explains it all here.)

By browsing through the thumbnails, you can locate the internal index, and ultimately, find the baptismal record for little Zofia/Sophia:

Zofia Klaus

By now you may realize that the catalog can also be used to find other types of genealogical records, including vital records from places in Europe. The important thing to remember when doing a place search in the FHL catalog is that you need to search for the name of the place where the records were created, rather than searching for the name of the village where your ancestors was born. These two places are not always the same. In Russian Poland, for example, the local Roman Catholic church maintained both church registers and the civil vital registers for Roman Catholic residents within the parish, so it is the parish name that should be searched in the FHL catalog. The parish which served a particular village can be determined by checking a gazetteer, and I’ve provided a list of some good ones here.

As an example, let’s suppose that I have evidence that my ancestors came from the village of Wierzbno in Słupca County in the former Kalisz gubernia (province) of Russian Poland. I won’t find that particular village in the FHL catalog, because Wierzbno was not the seat of a parish. Even worse, I will find 3 places called Wierzbno in the catalog, but none of them will be correct because all of these results pertain to places by the same name that are located in other parts of Poland. Searching for my ancestors in these records will be a complete waste of time.


However, if I check a gazetteer (in this case, Volume 2 of the Skorowidz Królestwa Polskiego, published in 1877), I see that the village of Wierzbno in Słupca County belongs to the parish of Kowalewo (indicated below, with a small typo, as “Kowalew,”—an issue which can be resolved by looking at a map).

Wierzbno in SKP With this information in hand, I can go back to the FHL catalog and check for “Kowalewo,” select the result for the Kowalewo that’s in Słupca County, and find both the original church records (księgi metrykalne, written in Latin) and the copies created for the civil authorities (kopie księg metrykalnych, written in Polish until 1868, and then in Russian).

Kowalewo records

As noted previously, clicking on the title of the collection will bring up the full list of films available. In the case of the księgi metrykalne, we see that none of these microfilms have been digitized. Unfortunately, the Family History Library discontinued their microfilm rental service last year due to the rising costs associated with supporting this outdated technology, and in light of the progress they’ve made with digitizing their vast collection of microfilms. They hope to digitize the remaining microfilms by 2020, but in the meantime, these microfilms are only available at the main Family History Library in Salt Lake City. If you’re desperate to obtain records from these microfilms right now, your best option would be to hire a researcher in Poland who could obtain copies from the Archdiocesan Archive in Gniezno for you, since the film notes state that this is the archive which possesses the original records. Alternatively, you could hire a researcher in Salt Lake City to access those microfilms for you, or try some of the other strategies suggested here.

The situation regarding access is much more promising with the civil records (kopie księg metrykalnych) for Kowalewo, however. The “camera + key” icon tells us that each of the seven microfilms has already been digitized, although they can only be viewed at your local FHC. When viewing, you’ll want to pay attention to the item numbers, underlined in red in the image below, because it often happens that the same roll of microfilm or digital folder contains records from different parishes in Poland. (Edited on 10 February 2023 to add: Please note that all collections of digital images will appear to be locked—i.e., have access restricted to viewing at your local FHC or affiliate library—unless you are logged into your FamilySearch account!)


Thus, in order to access Akta urodzeń, małżeństw, zgonów 1876-1879 (birth, marriage and death records from 1876-1879) from Kowalewo parish, you’ll have to skip ahead through the images in the digital folder until you get to Item 15.

Sometimes it happens that one finds records for one’s family in an indexing database like Geneteka, but the indexed entry is not linked to a scan. (If you’re researching Polish ancestors but are not familiar with Geneteka, please see this tutorial.) This does not suggest that no scan is available online. Rather, since Geneteka is created by volunteers, and new scans are being added regularly at sites like FamilySearch, Szukajwarchiwach, etc., it may just be that the volunteers have not yet had an opportunity to put links in place.  Therefore, the FHL catalog should always be one of the sites you routinely check when you look for scans for indexed entries found in Geneteka.

An example of this is shown here. Geneteka contains an entry for the marriage record of Wincenty Tomaszewski and Franciszka Czapkiewicz who married in Chrostkowo in 1858.


No scan is linked to this entry, so should we assume that this record has not been digitized somewhere? No. A search of the FHL catalog reveals that both church and civil records are available for Chrostkowo. As was true with records for Kowalewo, accessibility is a mixed bag, with some records being available for viewing only at the FHC. On first glance, it appears that our 1858 marriage is going to be one of those records with restricted access, since we anticipate that it will be included in the collection, Akta małżeństw 1846-1889.

Akta malzenstw

However, if we keep scrolling down that page, it becomes clear that there is sometimes overlap or redundancy in the microfilmed/digitized collections from the FHL for a particular parish. In this case, our 1858 marriage record is freely accessible in the collection, Akta małżeństw 1846-1863.


From that point, it’s not too difficult to locate marriage record #25 from 1858, which was accurately described in the Geneteka index as the marriage record for Wincenty Tomaszewski and Franciszka Czapkiewicz, whose names are underlined in red in the image below.

Tomaszewski marriage

At this point, you may be wondering about the reason behind the difference in accessibility for different collections of records from the same parish. The answer to this question often lies in the Notes within the FHL catalog entry. In the case of civil records for Chrostkowo parish (Kopie księg metrykalnych, 1808-1889), the microfilms were made from original records which are held by three different archives: the Geheimen Staatsarchiv in Berlin, the Katholischen Kirchenbuchamt in Munich, and the Archiwum Diecezjalne in Płock.


In order to place scans online, the LDS must negotiate terms with the owners of the records. Some archives don’t mind if the scans are freely available, but others will allow the LDS to place them online only under more restricted access conditions. From a practical standpoint, most of us don’t really care which archive owns the original records, as long as we can access them one way or another. However, it’s important to be aware of this potential for redundancy in the available collections, and the consequent need for close examination of the Film/Digital Notes in the FHL catalog entry for your parish of interest before concluding that a trip to the FHC is necessary.

As you can see from these examples, there’s much more to FamilySearch than just the indexed records. By utilizing the the catalog, you may discover collections of browsable scans that will allow you to break through your brick walls with unimagined ease. As always, I wish you the very best of luck with your research, and if you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments. Happy hunting!

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2018

8 thoughts on “A Step-by-Step Guide to Finding Digital Images in the FamilySearch Catalog

  1. Wow. This is very helpful. It helps me understand why I could not find information on Polish villages, as I was not looking for them correctly. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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