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R. Scott Lloyd, Deseret News
Sign on new Layton Utah FamilySearch Center is illuminated after dark.

Knowing the ins and outs of a product can optimize the use of the service, and Robert Kehrer, senior product manager for FamilySearch, shared his expertise at the RootsTech 2017 family history and technology conference. He offered five tips to finding elusive records in the FamilySearch database on FamilySearch.org.

1. Waypoints

If data is unindexed in FamilySearch, it is unfindable by the search tool, Kehrer said. However, researchers can dig through the records efficiently with “waypoints.”

“Waypoints are like mile markers on the freeway,” he said. “They organize large image sets into logical chunks.”

Waypoint collections include counties, the first letter of surnames, terms of interest or record types. To access waypoint collections, Kehrer said users must browse all published collections, and filter them by their desired waypoint.

“The files are organized in such a way that you don’t have to dig for hours,” Kehrer said.

Kehrer advised researchers to always look at how collections are indexed before diving in.

“Look through the bookkeeping images at the beginning of each set to help your search go faster,” he said.

2. Exact searching

Kehrer recommended using exact searching for narrow searches in which the goal is fewer results.

“It gets rid of variability,” he said.

With this feature, the results hide records that don’t exactly meet queries, according to Kehrer. He said that the system will, however, recognize name variants and allow wiggle room for mis-indexing and other common recording errors. However, the exact searching feature hides records if the date is not exactly what is specified, so Kehrer said that knowing specific information is critical.

3. Wildcard searching

“The wildcard query is the opposite of the exact search,” Kehrer said.

With wildcards, users can replace any ambiguous character with an asterisk, and FamilySearch will match everything specified around it.

A question mark can also be used to replace an ambiguous character that could have been mistyped in the records.

Kehrer advised researchers to look for unique information to go along with an ambiguous search.

Kehrer used the wildcard search to find a mis-indexed ancestor named Timothy Speak. Most of the documents he found were illegible, so Kehrer paired an ambiguous search with a search for Speak’s wife’s unique name, Orleana, and was able to find more accurate information.

4. Indices in an image set

To shorten search times, Kehrer said that researchers should look to indices in record sets. Go first to the index or table of contents that the record creator wrote within the scanned books, he said.

“FamilySearch photographers don’t just photograph the record tables. They document the index pages as well,” he said.

Then do the math to narrow down about where to search, Kehrer said. For example, if there is a set of about 2,800 images over a 90-year period, that’s roughly 30 images per year. If a search is for a particular year, researchers should calculate how many 30-image sets to skip to reach the correct year.

5. Utilize the FamilySearch catalog

When an image set isn’t indexed, Kehrer said that users should turn to the FamilySearch catalog, which is at familysearch.org/catalog/search or FamilySearch.org, under "search" and then click on the "catalog" menu.

“It’s essentially a library catalog,” Kehrer said. “It includes everything that we have gathered as an organization over the years. Always try to find the on-paper, photographed index of the records you’re looking for. It will help you find them quicker than browsing through every single collection.”

To maximize the catalog’s usefulness, Kehrer recommended organizing sources by the batch number that's associated with an indexing project rather than by a keyword. The batch number tells the search program what indexing project a record came from and what type of record it is.

“Groups of records are often from a specific place and type, and over many family generations,” Kehrer said. “By repeated searching, through batch, multiple generations can be indexed and grouped together.”

This can help searchers find connected family records and produce a more powerfully focused list of results, he said.

Alongside these search hacks, Kehrer’s biggest advice was to not give up on the first try.

“Always dig a little deeper,” he said. “If you don’t find results on your first query, go back to the collections tab and try again. You are part of something big. Don’t give up searching.”