Researching at the Family History Library

In addition to the ongoing delightful process of discovering Sarasota, my next travel adventure will be a week-long visit to Salt Lake City, Utah, where I’ll be attending an annual genealogy conference called RootsTech, and researching at the Family History Library (FHL) there.  I did the same thing in February 2016, except that I went by myself.  This year, I’ll be meeting up with a genea-friend I met there last year – which means it will be even better!

There’s no real preparation needed to attend the conference – I’ve already downloaded the app and the syllabi – but the planning involved in researching at the FHL is significant.  I’ve been there three or four times, which doesn’t make me an expert by any means, but it’s enough to have learned a few things which I’m happy to share with you.

As with most of us, I try my darndest to be efficient with my limited time, and frugal with my limited money.  A trip to Salt Lake City for a week can be expensive, so every minute there is precious, and I want to make the most of it.  This takes lots of planning.

The way I rationalize the travel expense is by comparing it with the cost of ordering microfilm at the local Family History Center at $7.50 a pop.  I can stay home and order 100 films at a cost of $750, which could easily take a year or more because of the wait time for each microfilm, or I can go directly to Salt Lake City and get it done in a few days.  And who doesn’t want to get their genealogy questions answered NOW? Plus, traveling is much more fun!!

Before Booking

Before you actually make flight and hotel reservations, it’s a good idea to see what’s going on in Salt Lake City.  You probably want to pick a time when there’s not a big conference going on, so the library isn’t as crowded.  Also, check the FHL’s holiday schedule and hours.  It’s generally open from 8 am to 9 pm Tuesday through Friday, with shorter days on Mondays and Saturdays.  It’s closed on Sunday.

If you only have a few days, you might want to plan your research trip for the days the library is open the longest.  When I had a full time job, I scheduled my travel day on Sunday when the library is closed.  Other people like to plan a week at the FHL with Sunday in the middle, taking a break from the crazy, sometimes overwhelming, research days.  You need to decide what works for you.


Once you’ve chosen your dates, it’s time to book your flight and hotel.  I try to use frequent flyer miles for the flight (I accumulate them by using a credit card which provides miles for dollars spent), unless I find a terrific bargain air fare, which I did this time:  $200 round trip, non-stop from Orlando to Salt Lake on JetBlue!  The catch is that I have to drive two hours to Orlando and pay for parking for a week, but it’s still worth it.

I researched all the lodging options before I went the first time, and since then, I’ve done the exact same thing every time, because it worked so well.  I stay at the Carlton Hotel, a few blocks away from the library.  It’s a small, older hotel, but for about $70 per night it provides everything I need:  a free shuttle to and from the airport, a free shuttle to and from the Family History Library, great wifi, a fridge and microwave in the room, and a full cooked-to-order breakfast. And the staff there is wonderful.  You just can’t beat that!

It’s about a 15 minute walk to the library if you’d rather get the exercise and fresh air, and a short walk to an excellent grocery store.  One of the terrific side benefits of the Carlton is that other solo genealogists stay there, and you end up sharing a breakfast table and making new friends.  It’s perfect!  And, it’s an even better deal if you can share a room with a friend, which I’m going to do this time.

Some folks might prefer a more modern hotel which may be more expensive, but closer to the library.  There are several of those, but I have no experience with them, so can’t comment.  It’s been more important to me to keep costs down.


To me, the whole food thing is a big pain in the neck in Salt Lake City – eating takes time away from researching.  Frankly, I haven’t quite figured out how to handle it.  Breakfast is covered at the hotel, and I make sure to get plenty of protein so it keeps me going through the morning.  But when it comes to taking meal breaks during the day at the library, I just don’t wanna. I know I have to eat, but I’m enjoying my research so much that I don’t want to leave!

The FHL has a lunch room with a slew of vending machines – that’s where I’ve had my lunch, and sometimes my dinner, in the past:  a pre-made sandwich, a soda, and maybe a couple of cookies.  It’s not a good solution, but it’s the quickest one.

If you’d prefer to take a break and leave the building for lunch, there are plenty of options within walking distance in the neighborhood.  Some people recommend asking at the front desk for a pass to eat in the cafeteria in the Church Office Building.  I’ve never tried it, so can’t comment.

This year, I’m going to try bringing my meals to the FHL, which will save money and help me stay on a healthy food plan.  If I’m very organized, I can shop at the grocery store behind the hotel, and prepare to-go meals in the room.  My friend Marina does a great job of planning ahead.  Last year, she brought everything she needed to support her food prep requirements, including plastic food containers.  I’m going to follow her example!

Research Planning

This is the fun stuff, and the hardest part as well.

First, you need to choose what you’re going to research. Sounds easy, but before you choose, consider the following:

  • Location:  You don’t want to spend time researching something at the FHL that you could also research locally.  That would be a waste of travel time and money.  For example, when I lived in Pennsylvania, I would NOT research at the FHL in any Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, or Maryland records.  These are all locations which I could access from home over a long weekend.  It made a lot more sense to research in Ohio, Oregon, California, or Wisconsin records.  These are locations I’m not likely to physically get to anytime soon.
  •  Where do you need assistance?  Think about areas where you might need help.  The plentiful staff at the library is generally extremely helpful, patient and kind.  Take advantage of their expertise by choosing areas where you might need help.  For example, consider researching in international records while you’re there.  Not only is it more difficult for us to get overseas to research in these records, but at the FHL, you’ll have help.  When I did some research in the German records there, the staff guided me every step of the way, and even translated some of the records for me – they are fabulous!
  • Should you focus, or grab and go?  Some people recommend focusing on only one family line, so you don’t feel overwhelmed.  I follow more of the grab and go method:  I come prepared with a list so I’m organized, but I’m all over the place.  I don’t do much analysis there at the library – I just grab records for later analysis.  I feel like this is the most efficient way to use my time there.  For example, perhaps there’s a record I’m missing for a particular person but I’ve just not been able to access it easily anywhere else.  Maybe I know the record exists because I’ve seen an index, but the record itself isn’t online.  This might be true for ten people across family lines, so I keep a Family History Library list as I research at home.  My goal in Salt Lake City is to obtain these missing records.
  • What’s online?   Don’t make the mistake of flying all the way to Salt Lake City and doing research you could have done online at home!  When you’re deciding which family to research, take into account whether or not the records you need have been digitized and uploaded to the internet.  I’ve made this mistake enough times that I now check the internet the week before I go to Salt Lake.  As you know, new records go online all the time, so it’s worth a quick look to avoid wasting your precious time at the FHL.

Next, prepare a research plan.  Once you’ve decided which families you’ll research, prepare a research plan. The first step is to review everything you already know about the family.  Make a list of what you still need to learn, and what types of records would help to find the answers.  This process will refresh your memory and give you an opportunity to find out as much as you can online before you go.

Then, familiarize yourself with the floor plan of the FHL. You’ll need to know this when you’re organizing your microfilm list in the step below.  The five floors are organized as follows, from the bottom up:

  • Basement 2: British Isles
  • Basement 1: International
  • Main Floor: Family History and Canada Books
  • Second Floor: U.S. and Canada Microfilms
  • Third Floor: U.S. Books and Maps

Fourth, check the FHL catalog online to find the records you need to access. Make lists of the film numbers you need, along with what you’re looking for on that film.  I organize the film numbers numerically, and by floor – this will make it quicker to locate them when you’re there.  You might also choose to list the microfilm in priority order, to make sure you have time to view the ones most important to you.

Note whether any of the films you need to see are in the “Vault” (the catalog will indicate that if applicable); if they are, you’ll need to order them in advance, which can be done online.

You might want to prioritize films which are in a series, or films which require looking at an index in one film, and the record in another.  This type of research is more time consuming and expensive to do at a local Family History Center.  For example, with deed research, you need to look at the index first.  At the local center, you would pay $7.50, wait two to three weeks for the film with the index, then order the microfilm with the deed book for another $7.50, and wait two to three weeks again.  At the FHL, you can look at both right away.

A lower priority would be films which you need to search line by line, page by page.  Since this is so time consuming, it might be better to do that at the local Family History Center when you get home.

If in the catalog you find books that look useful to you, plan to look at them first.  Books can’t be circulated, so the FHL is the only place where you can view them (of course, they could be at other libraries as well).

Remember, you want to “hit the ground running” when you arrive at the FHL. The more you can do in advance, the more you’ll be able to focus on getting the records you need when you get there.

What to Bring

  1. A flash drive. The FHL has high-tech digital microfilm viewers which allow you to save the images directly to a flash drive.  These machines also allow you to adjust the focus and the brightness/contrast, and you can zoom in to the sweet spot.  If you bring your own flash drive, there is no cost to save documents this way.
  1. One or more notebooks. I’ve found that if I have one notebook, or one section in a notebook, for each surname, it keeps me more organized.  When I get home, I file my notes in the appropriate surname folder both in my physical and digital files.  My notes document which microfilm I looked at and what I copied to my flash drive.  This helps me to create the citation later as well.
  1. Your laptop or tablet. Everyone has their own way of keeping their information.  Some folks don’t even use paper any more.  I still use both, so I bring both a paper notebook, and my laptop.  Make sure you have access to your complete family tree and genealogy files, whether it’s on your computer, on paper, or on the internet, and don’t forget your passwords! Scan everything you have on the family so you have the information without having to carry a large pile of paper with you. If you’re like me, you’ll probably go back to your hotel room after a day of research, and do some online research with the new information found.

My laptop has all of my genealogy information on it, so as long as I have that with me, I don’t have to remember what information to print out for my research.  Another reason I bring my laptop is that the FHL has free wifi, so I can access the internet from my own computer right there at the microfilm station, rather than getting up to use the FHL computers every time I need to look something up.

  1. A research bag. You’re going to need a bag to carry to the library with you.  Stock it up with your laptop, notebooks, flash drives, snacks, pens and pencils, pencil sharpener, Tylenol, a magnifying glass, ruler, tissues, and so on.
  1. Digital camera. Instead of using the copy machine to copy pages in a book, take a digital picture.  If you take a picture of the cover of the book and the title page in the front, and then the internal contents you want, you’ll know what book your photos came from, and then  you can craft your citation.  If you do need to make copies, the library sells copy cards you can use – you don’t need to bring change.

At the Library

The library provides a ten minute orientation which you might want to watch first.  Also, check the class schedule to see what’s offered during the time you’re there.  The staff is very helpful, so don’t hesitate to ask if there’s anything at all you need.

I arrive at the library at opening time, go directly to the floor I want, and get started!  This time I’m going to the third floor to look at the U.S. books, where I’m sure I’ll spend at least a day.   I can’t wait!!

6 thoughts on “Researching at the Family History Library

  1. Wow, Chris! Talking about one stop shopping about how to plan and implement the Salt Lake City research trip! What a wonderful resource and help you are to the “Roots” community! Thanks for your time and expertise! Truly unique in so many respects!


  2. Thank you for the tips! Our mutual cousin John G in England told me you had this great article. Awesome! Thank you so much for sharing. I am so glad to receive the advice and tips, so I can plan my trip.


      1. Hi Chris…Actually I have to double check, but John & I connect thru his mother’s line at William Dixon Kennedy (1824-1871).


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