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For those who are unfamiliar with Family Search website, its purpose is to provide genealogical information and on visiting the site, visitors will see the text "Free Family History, Family Tree, and Genealogy Records and Resources from Around the World" prominently displayed in mixed-case navy blue storybook-style text and this factor is one of the most impressive - and, dare I suggest, noble? - features of Family Search. No hidden charges, no subtle "exclusive gold membership" type of offers (as with Genes Reunited) or "Why not upgrade to World Membership for just £200 a year?" (or whatever it is that Ancestry charge at the moment) and - best of all - no carrot-on-a-stick records. Anyone familiar with pay-per-view or subscription based online family history facilities may be aware of the disappointment that comes with finding that all-important clue, only to click for further details and read the irritating, "Sorry, you need X level of membership to view that" or "You must purchase credits to see this image".
An element that may bother some users but may not be a concern to others (depending on how interactive you like your family history research to be) is that, unlike with paid sites such as Genes Reunited and Ancestry, Family Search doesn't offer any kind of "names I'm trying to find" or "Do you have these people in your tree?" facility which means that other people who are researching the same names or people have no way of making contact. Another feature that some may feel the absence of is a community-type message board, which sites such as Genes Reunited and Ancestry provide. However, as a searchable resource, it is hard to fault the basic purpose of Family Search.
I feel the site designers should be commended for the unfussy navy, white and grey colour scheme. It's easy on the eye and presents information in a clear way. Where names generated by a search are hyperlinked to show the user how to access additional details, it is obvious. (Although a seasoned internet user, I think even a beginner would be able to cope with this site, with basic guidance to start them off.)
I find Family Search exceptionally easy to navigate. Starting from the home page, you are limited to entering a forename, surname (essential - I get told off in red text if I try to search without this element!), event, date (this is optional), accuracy of date (to the exact year or 5,10 or 20 years either way) and country to start your search but - assuming you have a rough idea of who you want to start looking for and you aren't trying to find a Smith from England (for example) - this is enough for a reasonable start. There are a range of helpful links to explore from the home page such as Jewish Family History Resources - those that are listed haven't been directly relevant to my research so I can't make any comments on how useful they are.
Once you have entered a name - Ann Grayson, for instance - you click to search and immediately see the results from each of the site databases which has found matches. I consider this far superior to Ancestry, whose current aim seems to be to make the records as difficult to access and search as they can.
Even though I only have a few ancestors who ventured across the Atlantic, I found Family Search very useful when I got a lead that certain relatives went to America - it meant I could check their details in the 1880 US census easily. (On Ancestry, I had the UK Membership but would have had to upgrade to World Membership at an extra cost to get that same information. Admittedly, with Ancestry you get census images for the UK census so I assume the same applies with the American records, but if there are only a handful of names that you need to research, paying an extra sum to a pay-per-view or subscription site might not seem justifiable when you can get an adequate transcription for nothing on www.familysearch.org. Strangely, though, although the "disability" column appears in the transcribed household details, these specific notes have been omitted where they would be available on a census image.)
The user doesn't have to tell the site to do a "soundex" type of search, which means that if you have got a name like Ann Grayson in your tree, it will locate similar sounding forenames (Nancy, Hannah, Annie, Anne etc) and surnames (Greyson, Grayston, Graystone, Grason etc) which means that - unlike the search engine on www.ancestry.co.uk - you stand a good chance of finding the record for your ancestor if it's on the site without having to go through endless alternative spelling searches. This can be particularly useful if you believe the person you're after was called Mary, but she happened to call herself Polly on the 1881 census - a search for Mary will frequently provide such alternatives as May, Molly, Polly, Maria etc. If, however, you want to specifically search for "Mary" there is the option to limit results to exact names only.
The website includes the International Genealogical Index (IGI), a huge bank of information, usually from parish records but occasionally submitted by site users. You can tell which ones are which - if you search for a baptism (for instance) when you click on a name in the search results, beneath the date and place and parents' names, it will either state "Extracted birth or christening record for the locality listed in the record" if it is taken from actual parish records or, if you find a submitted record, the note underneath will state "Record submitted after 1991 by a member of the LDS Church" or something similar.
A good indicator of the accuracy or inaccuracy is the level of detail in the submitted record. Some have been carefully copied down to show Joe Bloggs with a spouse Mary Jones who married on 1 Jan 1800 at St. Peter's Church, Liverpool, Lancashire whereas other submitted records might only say that Joe Bloggs married Mary in about 1800 at Liverpool, Lancashire. Occasionally you find ages added to the names of the couples - in post-1837 extracted parish records (1837 being when births, marriages and deaths were first registered in England) because the couples gave their ages either as "of full age" (meaning they were over twenty-one) or in actual years, sometimes you will find notes that the bride was 19 and the groom was 20, for instance. This kind of detail, however, is not guaranteed and - if I can - I like to check microfilms or microfiches of the actual registers in records offices because extras such as father's occupation, address, godparents etc are not included on individual records as a rule. (If any of those on Family Search do include them, I have yet to be lucky enough to find one!)
One way to bypass the uncertainty over whether a record will turn out to be extracted or submitted is to use www.familysearch.org in conjunction with another good indexing site I have found (put "Hugh Wallis IGI batch numbers" into a search engine and the home page will come up). The IGI records are organised into batches with identification numbers that include letters - christening batches usually start with a C, marriages with an M - so that you can click on that number and search for every baby called Phillips (for instance) baptised in that parish. The problem with this, however, is that there is no way when doing a general search to tell the search engine to ignore the submitted entries - and this is where the Hugh Wallis site comes into its own.
As far as I can make out, the Hugh Wallis site owner has no connection at all with the LDS church or the Family Search site but has compiled a list of the "batches" (sets of church records are assigned a certain number - if the church was a tiny country parish, every baptism from 1600 to 1850 might fit into one batch whereas a big city like Manchester or Liverpool, with many churches, may have each available parish split up into ten or twelve different batches, each covering three or four years - or fewer), organised by county, then county, then alphabetically by town/village/city (where the town/village/city is represented) so that you can see what records are available and how wide a timespan is covered. Why it never occurred to Family Search to put this kind of index on their own site is a puzzle to me.
It's worth bearing in mind that the data - although valuable - is far from comprehensive. Some counties - such as Essex - are barely covered at all, others might be well represented. Different branches of Christianity may be also be harder to trace than others using the site - people with Anglican ancestors are more likely to find relevant dates and events but for anyone seeking records for Catholics, Methodists or other denominations (I have learnt about this because a number of my paternal ancestors were Catholic), the extracted records may be limited or just not there. I gather that this is because the Catholic Church, by and large, wouldn't give the Church of the Latter-Day Saints (or Mormons) who are affiliated with www.familysearch.org access to their records because of the LDS practice of baptising people into their church as Mormons even after death. (This may seem picky to some, but on the other hand I can see why certain faiths would object.) I would advise anyone researching "non-conformist" families to make a trip to the county records office instead.
You can download a Personal Ancestral File (PAF) from the site for free in order to collect your family tree data together. As you can also submit your own research to the site it seems that you can then upload your PAF to be included in the International Genealogical Index. Unfortunately this is where the "human error" element comes in. Everybody gets brick walls and vague or incorrect information given to them when researching family history (I have been told some out-and-out lies and uncovered some definite cover-ups . . .) so sometimes your data can have gaps - an approximate date of birth, a "possible" maiden name - but there seems to be nothing to stop vague, inaccurate or deliberately incorrect data being submitted. Another limitation I have found regarding PAF is that it seems to be an application which only works on a PC - this won't apply to Windows users, but as a Mac owner I found it irritating.
Overall, I would recommend a browse on Family Search to anyone starting out on genealogical research - it is simple to navigate, costs nothing and will at least provide an idea of the types of primary records that are useful to exploring a family tree - but I would also advise them to double-check both extracted and submitted records (and even census information) if the opportunity arises.