The BYU Family History Library as a Resource for Church Records
Church records can be some of the most elusive records sought after by genealogists, so the importance of understanding the organization and record keeping practices of your ancestors' particular denomination should not be minimized. Even if you make the effort to understand when and where the church records may have been kept, you may still face restrictions on obtaining access, especially if you do not happen to share the same religious orientation of your ancestors. For example, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) often face opposition from religious record repositories based on a general misunderstanding of their beliefs concerning doing church ordinances for the deceased. See Temples.
Many important church records, however, have been preserved on microfilm, in books and manuscripts in major, genealogical record repositories where access is not limited by the researcher's religious affiliation or lack of affiliation. I have previously discussed how to find these records in the largest genealogical library in the world, the Family History Library, located in Salt Lake City, Utah, by using the FamilySearch.org Catalog.
As I have also written previously, Utah is home to the second largest genealogical record collection in the world, located in the Harold B. Lee Library's Family History Library (Lee Library) on the campus of the LDS Church sponsored, Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah, just south of Salt Lake City. Here is a screenshot of the web page for the BYU Family History Library.
The genealogical resources of the BYU Family History Library are not segregated from the rest of the collections in the vast Harold B. Lee Library, so access to the Library is governed by the University's overall academic schedule. As with any record repository, it is important to ascertain the availability of the collections including days and hours of operation and any restrictions on access. Consistent with other academic institutions in the United States, BYU operates on a semester basis and all of the school's libraries may be closed between semesters, during school vacations and to observe national and state holidays. The BYU Family History Library is not operated by FamilySearch as is the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. It is part of the University and directed by University professors and their staff. There are a large number of LDS Church missionaries and volunteers, just as is the Library in Salt Lake City. But these missionaries and volunteers each have their own shift and schedule and if you need assistance in a particular area, such as research in church records, it is a good idea to contact the Library in advance of your planned visit as it the case with a visit to any other similar repository.
The Harold B. Lee Library (including the Family History Library) has a unified, online catalog. It is a non-circulating library except for university staff and students. This means that materials cannot be removed from the Library. However, the BYU Family History Library has extensive and very sophisticated copy and scanning equipment for free use by the public.
Some of the genealogically important books, microfilm and documents are concentrated in that portion of the Library identified as the "Family History Library," but the bulk of the genealogically important items are cataloged and scattered around the other Library collections and access to all the materials can occasion some rather extensive walking. Here is a screenshot of Level 2 (below ground level) where the BYU Family History Library is located.
The section containing the BYU Family History Library is called "Religion/Family History." Unfortunately, the maps do not give you an idea of the scale of the Library with its 98 miles of shelves.
Here is a screenshot of the initial search page of the Library catalog.
You begin your search by typing in your search terms in the blank field provided. There is an online Research Guide to assist you searching the Library.
The professional staff of the Library are very knowledgeable and helpful as are the volunteers and missionaries in the BYU Family History Library.
One of the most valuable resources is the extensive online web portal with hundreds of resources that are not duplicated at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. These resources are only available to patrons when using a Library computer while physically in the Library. Here is a screenshot of part of the list of websites available.
Searching in the BYU Family History Library Catalog
Finding specific information in a huge library such as the BYU Lee Library is a skill that is acquired through practice. Each library has its own unique advantages and limitations, but in every case, the basic skills needed are the same. Here are a few books on this subject.
Mann, Thomas. The Oxford Guide to Library Research. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Quillen, W. Daniel. Mastering Family, Library & Church Records. Cold Spring Harbor, NY; New York: Cold Spring Press ; Distributed by Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2012. http://www.essentialgenealogy.com.
Swanborn, P. G. Research Methods: The Basics. The Hague: Boom Onderwijs, 2009.
Upson, Matt, C. Michael Hall, and Kevin Cannon. Information Now: A Graphic Guide to Student Research, 2015.
The basic Lee Library search can be expanded with a dropdown menu.
Here is an example of a search on "church records."
You can see that just this search resulted in 113,396 results. Obviously, you need to know some specific details about your ancestors to help narrow your searches. For example, some of my own ancestors lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the mid-1800s and were Presbyterians. Here is an example of a more focused search.
Even with these specific search terms, there are still over 500 results of items in the Library. In the example of my own ancestors, my Great-great-great-grandfather was buried in the Fourth Presbyterian Church Burial Ground in downtown Philadelphia. Another search for the "Fourth Presbyterian Church Philadelphia" has 1,131 results.
It may seem overwhelming to find that there are so many results, but the important part of library research is to continue looking and always assume that what you are looking for is there somewhere. In addition, once you have identified a book or other record that is "in the ballpark," that is somewhat related to your research objective, then it is time to get up and "walk the shelves." This means that you go to the area of the Library where the item or items are located and physically search through all of the books in that section of the Library for pertinent material. This may seem excessive, but it is the only way to be moderately sure that you have located everything in the Library. This technique is applicable to any repository or library anywhere that gives patrons access to the shelves.
The key to success in finding items in any Library and especially on as large as the BYU Harold B. Lee Library, is to keep looking and ask for help.
See the previous posts in this series.