Worth a Thousand Words: How to Find and Use Image-Only Collections on FamilySearch

January 17, 2017  - by 
Worth a Thousand Words: How to Find and Use Image-Only Collections on FamilySearch

By Katy Barnes

If you’ve entered your family names into a genealogy database like FamilySearch.org or Ancestry.com and didn’t find the answer you were seeking, don’t give up hope! Did you know there are millions of pages of digitized records online at FamilySearch.org that don’t show up when you conduct a general search?

FamilySearch runs a massive crowdsourced indexing program where volunteers like you or me can spend time transcribing records. These transcriptions can then be queried by the website’s search engines, and that process is how you are able to locate an image by searching for a name. These indexing projects are organized by record type, time period, and language.

Some collections are larger than others, and some are more difficult to index or use. The easiest records for volunteers to index are censuses, draft cards, death certificates, and other similar records that were made on pre-printed forms because the information contained in them is consistent and standardized. But what about wills, estate files, court minutes, or deeds? These were often written in narrative or paragraph form and can take much longer to read through, understand, and then extract the necessary information and enter it in a standard way.

The thing is, answers to brick wall problems often lie in records that are not indexed. Probate, land, and tax records are invaluable for the answers they can provide in pre-1850 American research. What if you can’t prove a relationship between a daughter and a father? A will could name the daughter as an heir to the father’s estate and give an estimated death date for the father in an era before death certificates were used. Are  you trying to identify parents or potential siblings of your landowning ancestor? Check the deeds. People often conducted transactions with family members, in-laws, and close friends. Some even state the relationships between the parties directly.

No thorough genealogical search is complete without referencing these record types. In fact, the solution to your brick wall problem may be hiding in plain sight, just waiting for you to discover the right record.

There are still many records sets that have been digitized but not indexed. However, just because the records are not indexed and not searchable by name does not mean they are not available from the comfort of your own home. You just have to know how to find them. In the past, most of these complex records were available only at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City or onsite at the local archives or courthouse. While some still are in local archives and courthouses, a large number of states, particularly in the South, now have them digitized and online ready for you to browse.

Here’s how to find these records online:

  1. Go to FamilySearch.org and click Search in the top toolbar.
  2. Select Records from the drop-down menu that appears.
  3. Hover over the map of the United States on the right-hand side, and select the state where the record was made. For the sake of the example, we chose Georgia. You will now be taken to a page titled “Georgia Indexed Historical Records.”
  4. Scroll to the section titled “Georgia Image Only Historical Records.” These are all the collections that are not indexed but can still be searched manually.
  5. Select the records of your choice. They are organized by type: censuses, immigration and naturalization, military, probate/court, and others.
  6. Click Browse and you’ll be taken one of two places—first, you may be taken directly to the record set, especially if it is a smaller record set. But you may be taken to a second screen that provides some divisions for the record set, called “waypoints.” For our example, we’ll choose the database “Georgia, Andersonville Prison Records, 1862–1865.” This collection is further divided into “Claims and Reports,” “Deaths and Burials,” “Departures,” and “Hospital.”

    Once you choose your desired sub-set, for example “Deaths and Burials,” you may be taken directly to the record set, or you may be given the option to narrow your search even further:

    Looking at records this way is just like looking at the microfilm at the Family History Library. If you chose “Vol. 28 Prisoner Burial Index, 1864-1865” from the choices above, you could look for your ancestor’s entry and then access the appropriate digitized volume.

    Each division is a waypoint, and by making note of these waypoints, you can more easily find your way back to the record you were using.

Going through these image-only collections can admittedly be quite time-consuming, since it requires going page-by-page through large books. It can also often require already having a general idea of when an event occurred, or where a person was living, but keep an eye out for time-saving helps. Some records have an alphabetical or chronological index within the first few pages of the collection, which created by the clerk who put the book together. Though not yet searchable by computer, you can quickly scan the index yourself for the name of the ancestor in question.

As with most things in life, the greatest rewards come as a result of hard work and persistence. Give records like this a try—you just might solve a decades-long family mystery!

Katy Barnes works for Legacy Tree Genealogists, a genealogy research firm with extensive expertise in breaking through genealogy brick walls. To learn more about Legacy Tree services and its research team, visit the LegacyTree website.


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  1. What is the current delta between the number of images being added without indexing and the number of existing, previously unindexed, images getting indexing added? Is that delta getting larger or smaller?

    1. I doubt if a FamilySearch employee will answer your query, Chad, as there is either a reluctance to reveal such detail, or it simply isn’t kept.

      Actually, I was surprised to find (just now) that images ARE still being added to the site without being indexed – I thought the idea was that all added collections were now to be indexed.

      1. I work at FS but I’m not sure if anyone has those kind of numbers on hand. What you can do, though, is check out the FamilySearch press page (http://media.familysearch.org/) and look at the “New Historic Records” updates on there. Each week it shows how many indexed images are published as well as how many images are published. Published indexed records usually far outnumber images.

  2. I frequently use the “image only” capability of searching for useful records, but my experience is that the “Catalog” gives access to more images than “Records”. [as an example, compare the availability of Swedish records using both methods]. Go to Search > Catalog > Type in the desired Country > from there use the “Places within _____ ” feature, if desired, which drills down to the next smallest locality division. Also, by initially restricting the “Search These Family History Centers” to the “Online” option, you will only see records with images.

    1. I gave my family history to the LDS in 1995 up London Headquarters. The details eventually appeared on the internet a few years later. My family history is on Ancestral File. I wanted to add an ancestor recently, Kezia Herbert nee Dedman. Who I found had married a famous Victorian artist called John Rogers Herbert ( Royal Academician). But Support have sent me an email saying I cannot add to my Ancestral File. Once upon a time the LDS website was excellent. But it seems to me that they have sold their souls to Findmypast, Ancestry.com etc etc etc. John Dedman

      1. Hi John,
        I saw that you apparently were able to add your new information to the Family Tree. I don’t know if you are aware of the duplicate record for Kezia with gives a more specific birth date (day and month) but these two records need to be merged. I don’t know how much you have worked on Family Tree so I’m not sure if you are familiar with the process of merging. If not, you might contact a family history consultant or center near you for some guidance. The PID for the duplicate is MFFY-9NN. I didn’t merge them (although from what I can see they were certainly intended to be the same individual) because they are not part of my family.

        Sorry to hear that you are not happy with the new site, but can assure you that FamilySearch has not sold their soul to anybody.

  3. Be aware that the records still may exist if they have been indexed. Searching for my 2x great grandmother, I found her baptismal record that wasn’t indexed, along with other family members that were also not indexed. Human errors do occur. I am greatful that there are people that are willing to index the records, but now I am more wiser and go back and look at the films.

  4. There are even more image only records that are not found under the Historical Records section, but can be accessed via the FamilySearch Catalog. These are additional microfilms that have been scanned, but have not yet been organized into Historical Records collections. You can look up a microfilm number, and if it has a camera icon by it, it has been digitized. Some images can’t be viewed at home, but may require viewing at a family history center.

  5. I would like to be able to access on line, records copied in Tarnow, Poland. I was there and found a notation that records had been copied, by LDS. Can you please advise how to go about conducting a search.
    Thank you for any help you can render.

  6. I would like to scan selected records from the films 57306 – 573320 but get the response from the FHC web site that they can only be viewed at a Family History Center or at a Family Search affiliate library. Yet the Blog says the records can be viewed from the comfort of my own home. Am I doing something wrong or do I not understand how the FHC functions.
    Many thanks,Robert

    1. Hello Robert! I’ve notified a records specialist about your request; they should be getting back to you shortly.

    2. FamilySearch’s goal is to make records available to everyone insofar as possible. Sometimes contracts with archives or other partners limit the ability to do so. The film you listed has a limited access restriction and so it can only be viewed at a Family History Center or Family Search affiliate library. FamilySearch is making every effort to reduce restrictions through ongoing negotiations. For additional information go to

  7. I am trying to find out more about my ancestors who lived in Honiton Clyst Devon. Rose Newbery and her sister Lillie ( christened together 1873 Honiton Devon, ) were twins; father Henry Newbery and mother Harriett Mitchell. Rose Newbery came to Harrow On The Hill on 1911 census. She married my ancestor Walter Lowes in 1915 at Hendon. They had a son born 1915 and named him Robert Walter Newbery Lowes.

      1. Thank you, Amy. I just found Rose Lowes twin sister Lily Newbery who married Albion Rowe 1902.

        So in 1911 Familysearch census tells me Lily Rowe was born in Honiton Clyst.

        Familysearch is terrific!

        My Dedman family is on Ancestral File.