Thursday, November 7, 2013

Have You Used the FamilySearch Free Lookup Service?

My genealogy students all know what my favorite word is "FREE!"

Right now I can heard them all say "FREE" in unison all the way over here in the Btown Gap.

Well nuff of that. I thought I was the master of free, but my old ham buddy Dick Eastman of EOGN fame has me beat. There I said it. So Dick don't get a big head on this. What am I talking about? Here is something very interesting from Dick Eastman's newsletter at If you like free, you will definitely like this.

This must be the best-kept secret in genealogy! Well, it isn't really a secret as it is documented on several web pages on However, in my travels, I have never met anyone who has used this valuable service. In fact, most of the genealogists I have talked with have never heard of FamilySearch's free lookup service. This surprises me because (1.) it is a chance to easily obtain valuable genealogy information from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and (2.) because it is available free of charge.

FamilySearch provides a free lookup service for genealogy books and microfilms that are available at the renowned Family History Library in Salt Lake City. The free service does ask you to supply specific information. The folks in Salt Lake City are not prepared to answer questions of, "Please send me all the information you have about my great-grandfather (insert name here)."  However, if you can specify a book and page number, or a specific image on a reel of microfilm, the personnel at the Family History Library will gladly look at that page or image and (in most cases) scan the entire page and email it to you for free.

What's not to like about this service?
You do need to do a bit of homework before using this service. At a minimum, you must provide:
  1. The name of the individual as it appears in the book.
  2. The book title
  3. The page number(s)
Next, check the Family History Library Catalog at to see if that book is available in the Family History Library's collection. If so, make a note of the Call Number.

Once you have the required information, fill out the online Photoduplication Request form at

Assuming you supplied enough information for the Family History Library employee to find the book, you will receive the reply and (usually) a scanned image of the page within a few days.

So how do you find the page number of a book that contains information about your ancestor? I suspect there are several ways but I would always start with Google Books at You can find tens of thousands of genealogy books there along with a few million other books covering a wide variety of topics. I would search for the name of the person I seek to see if anything about him or her has been published in a book.
Comment: As a genealogist, you really should be familiar with Google Books as it is another free and valuable service. If you are not yet familiar with Google Books, this is a good time to learn!
Keep in mind that Google Books scans ALL the pages of all the books it digitizes. That includes books both in and out of copyright. For books that are obviously out of copyright (normally anything prior to 1923 for U.S. publications), Google Books will display the entire page to you. For books out of copyright, you won't need to use the FamilySearch Free Lookup Service as the same image is already available to you on Google Books.

However, for books printed in the past 90 years, Google cannot legally display entire pages to you without the author and/or publisher's permission. Instead, Google displays only a snippet from that page. Typically, you only see a paragraph or two, showing the words immediately before and after the name you specified. If that snippet happens to contain all the information you need, consider yourself lucky. However, my experience has been that the snippet is only a "teaser" and does not display everything I need.

What do you do if you want to see the entire page, or several pages from the book? The answer is to use FamilySearch’s free lookup service. Assuming the Family History Library does have the book and the information you supplied does point to the appropriate page, an image of the entire page will be sent to you in email. I am no lawyer but I believe U.S. copyright laws allow libraries to look up information for patrons upon request and send limited photocopies or scanned images whereas Google and other providers of information cannot legally supply similar images in large quantities to everyone.

You may never need to use the FamilySearch free lookup service. However, if you do have the need, this is a valuable service that is free. You don't need to fly to Salt Lake City to obtain what you need.

If you wish to use the FamilySearch free lookup service, I would urge you to first read Nathan W. Murphy's description on the FamilySearch Blog of how it all works at Nathan even supplies screenshots showing the step-by-step process of using Google Books to find snippets of genealogy information.

UPDATE: By Nathan W. Murphy of the Family History Library: "GOOD NEWS -- you can now use this service up to five times a week. The previous limit had been five times a month."